There is a specific jouissance to being denied what you need. An ecstasy to it that comes to define you. It describes you as a potential, as a flawed thing, undeserving of the thing you want – for now, incomplete – for now. The horror of having desire satisfied never has to be faced. That’s what makes it so addictive.
I am the piece of meat that circles around the whirling blades. Nicked but never ground into the paste of the whole. The drop of water that never quite makes it down the drain to join the sea. And after a while, that simple act of missing the boat becomes the work of a lifetime. The familiar landscape of the imperfect vortex.
Perhaps today I wouldn’t think it much of that mountain but, at the age of seven, it towered above me, rocky and steep and impossible. In the hills above Ojen, my father handed me a glass bottle of water in a string bag, and fitted his own into his knapsack.
“Come on,” he said, beckoning with a strong, brown, vein-lined hand. “We can get to the top by lunch.”
Rock and scrub. Dry red earth and grey-green brush, hunkered down against the mountain from the sun and wind. We climbed: my father with his long, dark, muscular legs and I on all fours. I scrabbled up the incline like a badly nurtured feral child. Succeeding only when I stopped thinking and let my body do what all small creatures try to do, I gave in to the instinct to climb to safety.
The young, ferocious sun reached its needle-like fingers through the weave of my shirt and pricked me. The rock crumbled in my hands, under my summer-bleached Keds. My long black hair caught in the thickets of dead bushes and dry leaves, stuck to my face and my neck in the rivulets of sweat, its salt stinging in the crevices of my limbs. The dust smelled of sharp things and tasted like a penny on my tongue.
He strode ahead. His legs taking him easily over the jagged rock, up the steep grade of the mountainside. A god immersed in his own inner dominion. His lips moved as he climbed. He was writing in his head. Lost to the mountain and the sun and the wind and to me. I knew I was following the physical incarnation of a god whose mind was elsewhere, as it often was. Gods have important things to think about.
Even if I had to reach the summit like a baby, on my hands and knees, I would do it. I would not fail my father. I would not disappoint him this time. I would not give him another reason to think less of me.
Not like the last time, when he had taken me out to sea on the pedalo, and I’d fallen in the water while he was thinking. It had been a long dog-paddle back to the beach through a forest of medusa tendrils.
That’s what you get for not keeping up with a god. The sun reminded me of the burn of those thousands of tiny, jelly strands against my skin and climbed faster.
The bottle swung in my string bag, bumping against my hip and thigh. Water sloshed in the bottle. Its sound so alien in that landscape. Its inner coolness condensing on the glass. Droplets pattered into the dust, leaving a trail from the sea up that mountain. The incontrovertible evidence of my propensity to fail him on my heels, I climbed faster.
He did not talk as we ascended. But the rocks spoke to me: hard glottal stops and crumbling dusty whispers until we reached the line of dry, misshapen pines, bent tight to the hillside just like me. Then the needles and the cones spoke in thick, tight patterns of order and disorder. The morse of sparse shade and the half-finished sentences of roots grown free from the earth. The acrid scent of old sap and sweetness of wounded wood where the beetles ate their way through the crinkled, scaly bark.
I lost my footing and slid backwards into the bowed trunk of a tree. For a moment, all I knew was fear and the exhilaration of the almost something worse than the big, black ants I’d disturbed. They crawled in wavy, black rivers over my fingers where I clutched onto trunk.
“What’s wrong?” he demanded.
“Nothing. I’m okay. I’m coming.”
“No. You’re not okay.” He towered above me, looking down at my leg, and I followed his gaze. “You’re bleeding.”
I was. I’d gashed my ankle on something as I’d slid. Perhaps a rock or a root.
“It’s okay. It doesn’t hurt,” I said, pulling myself up.
“But there’s ants.” I watched two shiny black ones skitter through the blood on my foot, leaving two little lines of red as they climbed up my shin.
My father edged his way down to me, dust and dead pine needles shifting under his feet. He crouched by my leg, pulled a glaring white handkerchief from the pocket of his shorts and, after brushing off the ants and dabbing at the cut, tied it tight around my ankle. It had looked like a flag of truce until I bled through it. Then it just looked like a bandage.
“You’re fine,” he said.
“I know.” Even though by then the shock had caught up to me and I was on the verge of tears.
“Drink some water.”
I stood up, did my best not to panic as I brushed the rest of the ants off me, and pulled my bottle of water free from the string bag. It had one of those metal and rubber stoppers – bright red and white – and made a popping sound as I flipped the wire back and opened it. Before I drank, I watched him to see how much was the right amount to drink.
Jaw up, head back, he drank. His Adam’s apple jumped as he swallowed, perhaps a quarter of the bottle. So I did the same. The water was warm. It pushed the tears back down my throat. That’s why he never cried, I realized. He had that Adam’s apple to keep the tears from coming up. Lucky.
“Let’s go. We’re almost there,” he said, glancing up the rocky incline. He wasn’t lying.
It wasn’t long before we clambered up and out onto a flat area, barren but for one bent, gnarled pine. Beyond it, in the glaring distance, lay the flat cobalt slab of sea, a rock of a different colour. Above it, the hazy blue belch of sky rose from a long roll of cloud on the horizon.
I sat cross-legged on hot, speckled granite, but my father stood and slowly turned. He closed his eyes, spread out his arms and inhaled, sucking the sky down into his chest.
“Shut up,” he murmured, eyes still shut. “Don’t say anything. Don’t spoil it.”
It was a view. It was perhaps the reason why the mountain was there – to bring that view into being. I think only adults can love views. At seven, once I’d taken it in, there was no more to drink. It was big – big as the world -and beyond my ability to absorb it. But under the crippled pine, in the shade of its tortured branches, was a small pile of stones.
It wasn’t terribly tall. It only rose up to just above my knee. A pyramid of smooth, rounded rocks. Some had writing in chalk on them, others were pitted and bare. Some had been scratched with something – maybe another stone – like cuts into its hard, dark skin, the pale heart of the rock showing through. It was my father’s shadow that blunted the glare of the sun and allowed me to see that they were letters. Words. Names. Initials. And tucked between the rocks, yellowing, tattered folds of paper. I pulled one out and opened it. There was writing in pen, but so faded I could not read it. So I folded it back up and put it back.
He swung his pack off his shoulder and rooted inside it, pulling out a little spiral-bound notebook and a pencil. Leafing through it, he tugged on an empty page and handed it to me with the pencil.
I took the paper and pencil and squinted up at him. “What should I write?”
He clicked his tongue in frustration. “Look around you, you idiot. You’re here, on the top of this mountain, in this incredible place. Write something. Something that matters.”
I squatted in the shade and thought. Something that matters. What could I write that would be big enough to fit on that page? Big enough to be fit for the purpose? There, on that summit, with my father the god, a whirlwind of dust at his feet, and the sun waiting on me to find the right words.
I wouldn’t know what to write now. I had even fewer words then. So I pretended to write something. I used the pencil to echo the patterns the pine needles had made, the whorls of bark on the trunks, the purposeful trails of gleaming black ants, the angles of the rocks, the crackled lattice of dried mud I saw on the way up.
My father held out his hand. I knew he wanted to read what I had written, but I couldn’t let him see. I folded and refolded the page until it was a small, tight little square and gave it to him. He didn’t open it. Perhaps he didn’t want to be disappointed. I think he knew that, whatever was on the paper, it wasn’t something he would have given me any praise for so he chose to postpone that deeper silence.
We hunted for some nice round stones and, after snuggling my illegible, wordless note between two kissing rocks, he carefully placed the new ones on top of the existing pile. The breeze stilled, the dead branches ceased rustling against each other, and the cicadas stopped keening. For a few moments, my father, the mountain and the world stilled. I knew it was to let me know that my failure had been duly noted.
“Right, let’s get a move on,” he said, standing from his crouch. “It’s a long way down.”
* * *
He’s in Highgate now, sandwiched between his selfish bitch of a mother and his criminally irresponsible father. There was just enough room between them to slot him in. None for the rest of us, and that’s probably all to the good.
This is about as far from the hot, dusty mountaintop above Ojen as either of us could get. It’s overcast. Drizzling and cold in the way only England can be. It reaches beneath your clothes, no matter how many layers you’ve put on, and snatches at the warmth like a spiteful, bitter urchin.
I’ve come to talk to a headstone. Something I’ve only recently realized has any value. I wasn’t here for his burial. I didn’t believe in those things then. I always thought it was my duty to carry him around in my heart. The whole clever, cruel, skilled, manipulative, rotting mass of him. I’ve wandered through the world, traveled to almost every continent, gone to bed each night and awakened each morning with the black hole of him inside me. Sought out his echo in every lover I’ve had. Treasuring the ones who would not or could not give me what I needed and despising the ones who tried.
Over the years, I’ve grown to love the sublime exile and the ritual denial of whatever it is I am so certain could complete me. Perhaps it was lost in the sea off the coast of Malaga and wedged among the rocks on that steep climb up to the mountaintop above Ojen. Other places, earlier places, too. Or perhaps I just need to believe that it must once have existed and once been found because the wound is so indescribably deep and needs a reason to exist. My failure to find it defines me.
I thought that what I needed was praise from him. Praise he couldn’t give me, praise I didn’t deserve. There was no praise to be had. And perhaps that’s the clue. I’m almost certain now – that wasn’t it. It just served as a convenient marker for some amorphous impossibility we’ve passed down through the generations, like a disease.
“Did you take that deep breath on the mountain because you knew that one day you’d end up here?” I ask the headstone. “Was it big enough to last all those years?” I don’t have to ask the dark anymore. I can speak to this piece of granite and leave his answers behind when I go.
I have failed brilliantly, again and again, to write something important. It took me almost half a century to understand that there are moments when it’s hubris to think there are words – any adequate words – to mark the occasion. Out of my purse, I retrieve the tightly folded blank sheet of paper, place it on the headstone, and pin it there with a smooth, round rock.