A while ago I fell in with a group who called themselves mystics and were trying to run out of things to say. They lived by two rules in a small beachside town not far from where I lived at the time. The house was a small cottage that backed onto a river. The river had patches of reeds and mostly pelicans and gulls for traffic. The rules decreed no conversation and that nothing should be repeated. While I was staying with the mystics, I met a girl named Kathy with whom I walked in the mornings and afternoons along the red clay cliff and the beach. I first saw her following me. I stopped at the foot of the hill and stared back at her, but she would not approach. She leaned up against a tree, obscured. The next morning she was closer and unperturbed when I turned to acknowledge her. Two days later, she hooked onto my cuff with a fingertip. Having partially scaled the hillside, Kathy looked back down at the roof of the house (two of the mystics were gardening in the rear yard) and spoke; at that, my ambitions to empathise with the mystics, my sincere assumptions about their ideology, dispelled instantly. Kathy was unbeautiful, and passive in bed, neither forthcoming nor generous in foreplay. She, as with all the women mystics, was unshaven. Her hair was short and crudely cut and its felled lengths had been sold. I had initially noticed her at a meal; supine on a beanbag at the room’s opposite side, legs carelessly splayed, revealing her bush to my neighbours and to me, oblivious or else liberal in the extreme. At every meal thereafter she fulfilled the same position and posture while the mystics affected their conspiracy. From the room’s edges and its few dispersed chairs, they shouted centripetally. Each of them offered a single sentence in turn. An order kept them from speaking over one another. (This was an imperative order, I realised with hindsight, because it prevented the happening of a disturbed and unfinished sentence, which would be unrepeatable according to the rules, and yet ineffectually banished. Suspended in the pure mental occupation of a paradox, this half-spoken phrase would have persisted timelessly.) I soon realised that Kathy and I had settled at the periphery of the rules and the order, separated categorically from the mystics and their task; we existed like stray animals sheltered in a monastery. Kathy’s stomach and thighs were fatty and pale. Her nose was shameful, blunt and pierced. She was or else had been a filmmaker. She described herself as an artist, of a subcategory that called itself ‘conceptual’. Her clumsy obtuseness was deliberate. Superstitiously, she never said the two words (conceptual, artist) together, frightened of their implication and spirit. Nor did she ever write them down in sequence, though she accepted them. She wore the qualification as a curse or a cross that was necessary to acknowledge if she wanted to resist it, like the illness of an alcoholic or a paedophile. In one of her films, a man walks through a park. His face is perpetually obscured by severe vantages, extremities of distance and angle, each of which is brief and unrepeated. The film is eleven minutes long, a ghost-story and an experiment in perspective (‘subjected third-person’, were her words). Kathy’s left ankle bore a tattoo, her fore-hip also. A Chinese symbol and two crossing dolphins, respectively. The latter suffered unflattering contortions during monotonous and regular missionary sex. The mystics wore their contemplation utterly. During dinner their faces were serious and furrowed. My admiration for them was theoretical and relentless, my fear of them was condescending and impractical. (After watching them for a while in silence, I occasionally lapsed into a sudden and private panic at the sound of an elegant or useful sentence from one of their mouths, as though I was watching a small fortune of currency fall upon a fire. I reminded myself; for the mystics, the ‘currency’ belonged to a country that was under absolute pillage, and was therefore among the only truly worthless things in the universe.) In Kathy’s ignorance I saw myself as parody; her singular innocence violated the pious scene (I was possessed by the image of a child in pursuit of a loose dog during the solemn focus of a hymn). She ate greedily, sucking her fingers and occasionally snorting. When the blue dinner bowls were gathered, Kathy’s alone sat belligerently on the floor. Occasionally I crawled across the room to collect it within my own. I awaited my banishment with the horrible certainty of a death sentence, conflicted in attachment to my aloof and sane position. Occasionally after dinner one or another of the mystics would remove their clothes and mount Kathy, pulling her dress up to her armpits, entering her dryly. I watched with premonition and jealousy; I was certainly more aroused at those times than when I slept with her. The other women mystics were also overwhelmed in this way, though it seemed less often. Kathy had joined the mystics after years of self-destructive and shameful behaviour. She’d never been asked to pay for food or board. Occasionally she joined a gleaning mission to the markets in the nearby mountain towns. Generally she stayed inside the house. She invariably wore a canvas dress and sometimes a duffel coat and military boots. When talking to me she held my hand, palm-up, in her own. She thumbed the bones searchingly. In my company, old emotions swelled in her. She dreamed occasionally of a party at which she was present but not in attendance. A moment of retributive heroism passes her by because of her omniscience; she is unable to pick up the gun or the fire-poker, her hands drift across them like smoke. On the bench atop the cliff, her awkward fringe refused to obscure the sun; she always winced. Once, seminally, a philosophy student had made an art of her humiliation. He had ushered her, sarcastically, toward her psychological ruin. At one stage—preliminary, as it turned out—she spent some part of each day in the gymnasium showers on her university campus. The torrents of hot water dulled her self-flagellating and throaty screams. Later still, she assaulted her best friend and left her family home. She took a room in a lodging house. Four times in six months, she had her stomach pumped to remove vodka, wine and cough medicine. At her lowest point she sat on a hospital bed and reasoned herself out of candidacy for an epiphany; she knew that her self-loathing was smarter than her. The mystics found her lying on Pottsville beach, drips and tubes taped all over her. (Incidentally, they found me in almost exactly the same place, though merely hungover.) Relationships inside the house were naturally unexplained. The privacy of an act determined its resonance; sex in the common areas was typically parasitic and inconsequential. Homosexual relations, apparently more sacred, certainly more passionate, took place exclusively inside bedrooms, though always with doors open or else ajar. When Kathy first met the philosophy student she had researched the topic of his thesis independently, remembering names and dates that she wrote down in a meticulous journal, in order to keep conversational pace with him and his friends. He was a number of years older than her, and her tutor. She understood virtually nothing of what she read, but she performed familiarity and insightfulness. In hindsight he’d surely been planning it all along; his compliments, his flattery, his encouragement, were the bait by which she was lured further into his rancid trap. Gradually, inevitably, and cynically, the focus of his study became more esoteric and confusing to her, the names and dates scarcer and less relevant. Historical fact gave way to conceptual puzzles and disingenuous language, which eluded her hitherto rote method of survival. She attempted to hold on. Night after night, sleeplessly, she tried to recognise the clue that allowed the philosophy student to pass off, dispute or capture this growing and already incomprehensible riddle with his whole person, to instil in his subtlest movements—a nod, an ironic smirk, a knee folded—an absolute grasp of what seemed to her a bottomless pit of doubts. In a panic, she secretly deferred her law degree. She shut herself away from family and friends and tried to swim her way out of the murky intellectual depths into which, fraudulently and without licence, she’d submerged herself. On the evening that her own mother had shockingly and yet prophetically called her a slut, Kathy felt as though her soul was a placard hanging around her neck. She’d become unbearable to herself.
This is an edited extract from Hang Him When He Is Not There, the debut collection of fiction by Nicholas John Turner, published by Savage Motif.