Observations from the Kitchen is an autobiographical adventure story that unfolds upon the metaphoric battlefield of a chess board, a place The Cook uses to describe and make sense of a lifetime spent in service to gastronomy.
Set within the sweatshop kitchens that have been his home, it is a journey that takes the reader from the frenetic chaos of the London's West End to the narcissistic playgrounds of the Cote d'Azur, through amazing India and magical Marrakech to the snow-covered domes of the Kremlin before ending in the steamy jungles of beautiful Costa Rica.
The Cook invites different companions, the people who have touched him, made his life something other than mundane, to join him 'a table', where, whilst preparing his signature dishes, they discuss such themes as Ambition, Loyalty and Contentment and whether such ideas are comprehensible to anyone other than the person who utters them.
Tico Times Book Review April 2014
Richard Neat, the cerebral chef over at San José’s Park Café, has a penchant for chess, Russian novels, philosophy and political manifestos. Now he’s whipped up perhaps his most complex dish in the form of a self-published reminiscence centered on “life at the center of the gastronomic revolution.”
Neat weaves in tantalizing snippets of how he prepares his signature dishes, as well as vivid travelogues covering his nomadic life over four decades, from London to France to India to Morocco to Costa Rica.
The introspective, existential themes of the book are played out against the strategic framework of an ongoing chess game and fashioned after a Platonic dialogue, with the chef debating such heady topics as ambition, faith, hubris and loyalty, with various opposing interlocutors. Along the way we are also treated to scathing but entertaining rants against greedy, over-taxing governments, and — my favorite — poisonous, overweening restaurant critics.
As a non-chess player, the metaphoric strategy was lost on me. What I did enjoy were the insights Neat provides into what it takes to aspire to and reach the pinnacle of artistry and craftsmanship in any field – in his case, gastronomy, and the golden grail of Michelin stardom.
The achievement of two Michelin stars in his London restaurant Pied à Terre, along with the only Michelin star awarded to an Englishman cooking in France, for his Neat Cannes restaurant, certainly qualifies the chef as an expert in what it takes to succeed in the gastronomic world. Much of the book deals with the collision between the forces of creativity and the high-stakes economics of the restaurant business.
Each chapter features the preparation of a Neat signature dish, starting with smoked foie gras with onion purée, and ending with an incredibly complicated braised pig’s head with pumpkin purée. Neat makes it all seem so deceptively simple. But these complicated “preps” make you realize how much training, experience and talent it takes to attain Neat’s level of creativity and craftsmanship.
The pressures to “create new temptations to amuse my ever-fickle audience” and to become a “faultless, fanatical craftsman” are neatly balanced by the pleasure Neat takes in the “beasts and vegetables that were reared and grown with care,” which, he says “oblige a cook to treat them with sufficient reverence.”
There is a lot to digest in Neat’s observations, on a number of levels. As a food aficionado, the lasting impression I took away was the realization that, along with skill, a lot of thinking goes into haute cuisine. All those decades Neat has spent in the kitchen were not just about producing food to eat, but also food for thought.
“Observations From the Kitchen“ by Richard Neat is available on-line for $7.99 at
Or visit Neat’s blog at www.parkcafecostarica.blogspot.com.
I had hoped to have a professionally edited and photographed book to offer and even imagined that I had secured the help of a large and prestigious literary agency whose M.D encouraged me over the summer with the following assessment ........
OBSERVATIONS FROM THE KITCHEN is rather wonderful. You’ve created an extraordinary work here, and a beautifully crafted one. I found myself thinking that every creative should read it regardless of what industry they’re in or skillset they’re mastering. It raises such important questions, and is so refreshingly forthright about them. This work is unique in many ways, yet you refer to OBSERVATIONS as a novel. That brings with it certain assumptions and expectations. I’m not sure that this is where it should sit. It’s such a smart, thoughtful, brave discussion about some really difficult (dare I say unresolvable) issues. It strikes me as a meditation, a parable, an exploration of the creative journey. If a reader comes to the work with that sort of lens, I think they would get a lot more out of it than if they came to it with “novel” in mind.
Unfortunately, the company decided that the book was impossible to 'position' so I am left with offering an amateurishly edited book accompanied by my own home photographs. I do hope however, that you might still enjoy it.
If you would like a copy you can find it at the following link.
“Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, which is done unto me, wherewith the Lord hath afflicted me in the day of His fierce anger.” Lamentations. 1:12
Healy watched in silence as the inaugural morning light crept slowly across the bedroom, little by little devouring the darkness and obscurity that had sought shelter in his room since the previous evening. Familiar objects that had lay still and hidden throughout the night now cautiously reappeared as he mechanically audited their existence. He yawned and rubbed his still sleepy eyes, an indifferent spectator upon the tussle between darkness and approaching day, one as yet inconclusive, a struggle that created a tenebrous mood, a palette of dull opacities such as favoured by Caravaggio upon which he might bring forth life.
His apartment in Old Havana faced in an easterly direction and bore the unenviable task of being first to witness each new day, dutifully cataloguing every sunrise that rose upon this tragic isle, sunrises that portended life, glimmering new reveries and deceitful hope. Each new morning bore within it the seeds of annihilation as Time tormented the buildings with the inexorable ruination of their beauty, driving every sensible object towards its inevitable demise. Destruction came as a blustery wind, a brilliant shard of sunlight, a handful of raindrops, Nature’s cruel hand that wore-away and eroded form, that wished only to annihilate those who had had the temerity to exist.
Healy had been awake for some time –his circadian cycle was measured in cigarettes and the new day was almost two sticks long- though had laid all the while motionlessly, as if unwilling to alert the new day to his presence.
His mind worked sluggishly, only slowly beginning to assign sequence and value to the surfeit of images that ran amok within his brain. As he stirred beneath the sheets, he came across the book entangled in his covers and pulled it towards him. He glanced at the faded portrait and remembered the intimate evening he and the author had shared together. Spinoza appeared as erudite as ever, and seemed to stare expectedly back at him, as though alluding to some unfinished conversation they might attend together. Healy strained to remember the previous night spent amongst the pages of his Ethics, and as though struggling to string a yarn onto a fine needle, he fumbled to thread his earlier ruminations back on to the slender eye of the previous night’s lucidity. He goaded himself with words and incomplete passages but on this particular morning could only curse his uncooperative memory as it refused to reconsider the episodes that the night before had seemed so clear.
Frustrated, Healy slunk further into the bed sheets, ignoring the oath of novelty the fresh day pledged, and anyway, doubtful as to whether the outside world could be as interesting as the emerging activity within his mind as a riotous stream of tittle-tattle, gathered randomly by his senses, clamoured for his attention.
He registered a whiff of detergent upon the sheets. Newly washed linen meant yesterday must have been Thursday and he instinctively groaned at his easy usage of such an appellation and wondered whether he would ever free himself from its clutches. It had been an ambitious idea he conceded, as one of his first acts upon arriving on the island had been to banish all the thoughtless words and magisterial descriptions that had forever imposed a routine upon him.
Names of days that had always notified him as to some irrelevant event, hours that whined of an unimportant rendezvous, or minutes that had yelped like an irritating puppy constantly in need of attention, they had all had too much influence upon his life. They had all been guilty of cajoling him into the pursuit of something pointless. Such subjugation had belonged to the life he had vowed to reject, and in his new life he had declared all dates, times, and measurements as outlaws, every tool of tyrannical precision as superfluous to his new liberated self. From then on, with a determination reminiscent of Canute, he had stopped buying newspapers, avoided any scheduled mealtimes and in a extravagant gesture of intent had thrown his watch, a present from a previous girlfriend, one whose memory was often as equally painful to him, into Havana Bay.
Immortality he reasoned, was not to live every minute and every second of past and future time, but was to be a mode of being quite independent of artificial measurement. He would live forever, his own forever, for when his heart ceased beating he would be conscious of nothing more, certainly not conscious of any continuation of Time that was not his own. By removing himself from the clutches of Time he would be free from notions of before and after, thereby making the idea of change and decline nonsensical. He would live forever in an everlasting now.
He smiled to himself as he remembered the exhilaration he felt when he had audaciously informed Time that he would no longer require its services, even going so far as politely explaining that he had invented -so he modestly imagined- a more personalized, more spiritualized calculation of existence. One that prosaically tick-tocked in harmony with the lifespan of the flowering bougainvillea that he habitually picked through the iron railings of the Spanish Consulate gardens and kept in a bowl by the window, or the duration of a smile upon his girlfriend’s face.
Of course this desire to stand outside the stream of Time had caused a few inconveniences, but with mock indignation Healy had dismissed the few discordant girlfriends whom he had made wait hours at vaguely specified meetings. The occasional empty stomach that groaned as he peered helplessly through the windows of restaurants that had long since finished serving food. Or the time when he went to the southern coast by bus only to discover that it returned to Havana only every third day, thereby leaving him stranded without a place to stay and he had slept on the beach. But these nuisances were paltry compared to the elation he felt at no longer being a servant to the diktats of a tyrant who had once commanded him when to wake, to hurry along, to eat and when to lie down to sleep again. It had been, he thought, a stunning victory, a genuine liberation, the moment from which he might truly begin to live.
It was an idea that inevitably exiled him from the uninitiated, people who were still yoked to schedules and timetables, people he should be cautious of being close to as they could always be relied upon to betray the time of day with witless predictability. Yet when his landlady’s casual statement all those months ago that new linen would be issued on a particular day of the week, a proclamation that effortlessly breached the flimsy walls of his blissful citadel, Healy merely lamented her lack of imagination rather than the possibility that his efforts might be impractical.
He shrugged to no one in particular, indifferent to the news, for whilst the new day now had a wretched name, it had not yet acquired a plump and rotund character, one that would be bloated and overladen with appointments, schedules and other demands upon his non-time. He tried to return to the contemplation of more serious affairs such as his homage to Spinoza. He stretched for the book and found the page from the night before. Again, he attempted to retrace the steps of his comprehension, but struggled because of new distractions, as through the deafening stillness of his room he heard the bustle and nascent activity of a waking town. Seductive voices that promised Healy it might be on this new day, this newly christened Friday, that he might do, or see, or feel something that justified his immersion within its long and tedious hours.
He fought valiantly against such temptations, and instead surveyed the contents of his modest room, silently nodding approval that his early attempts to hamper the work of Time were reaping such startling victories. The landscape viewed from his bed was entirely different from the previous morning and he smiled as he remembered how he had first imagined the ruse. Noticing how the earliest, most zealous sunrays had always burst into the room with the same tiresome punctuality, prodding his exhausted body until his awakening became as rhythmic as the sunrise itself, he had implemented a brilliant scheme. His cunning plan had been to move the bed to as many different places in the room as its size and meagre collection of furniture might permit. After that, he had lived like a fugitive from the early morning light, as each day’s boisterous shafts of gold had been forced to search him out with ever greater difficulty and he had been able to wake only when he felt like participating in that particular day, rather than by the rude summoning of Helios.
At first his landlady had protested at the unusual rearrangement of her furniture before she realised her objections were futile, after which her irritation lapsed into mere bafflement and she would simply shrug her shoulders exclaiming something in Spanish about locos ingles. She similarly hummoured his earnest requests that she might refrain from assisting the tyrannical work of Time by reminding of him of when. After a while, it had made her laugh, a wonderful anecdote with which to amuse her friends, as she recounted the behaviour of her strange foreign tenant. She even gave up her seat in the kitchen so that if he ever took coffee with her there, he could sit with his back to the clock, away from the minutes and hours, who Healy called the evil siblings who marched purposefully around the clock face, beating an unvarying rhythm upon a drum of ephemerality and always towards his demise.
Healy’s early years hinted little of such eccentricity, as his life until his arrival in Havana had otherwise followed a vaguely conventional theme. A happy childhood spent in a somnolent country village where the hedgerows, fields-o-gold and huge stone houses wore the respectability of age, a sense of permanency that looked disapprovingly upon any step towards ambition or impetuosity. Without the distraction of siblings, Healy remembered that his sole childhood responsibilities had been to accompany his curiosity on its daily adventures and to respectfully obey each and every suggestion that his subversive inner-voice might propose.
He had avoided the company of adults whom he remembered as always being preoccupied with chores, doing things and hurrying along, with always wanting a happy moment to end and replacing it instead with something more practical and definitely less pleasurable. He found them silly and unimaginative as they never seemed to be as enchanted by the things he encountered in his day as he had been, and noticed a special tiredness that clung to adults, which made them melancholic. Later a helpful uncle had explained to him that this was the burden of life’s responsibilities and duties and he would one day have to suffer them too. He had never looked forward to growing up.
Then came school, where his natural dreaminess and a tendency to rouse his interest only for exploits that he could find magic and adventure within, meant his early years were not always easy. He was vexed that precious space had had to be found amongst his treasured thoughts for mirthless equations and stern-faced facts, whose didactic lectures as to their usefulness in later life were but a hint at the gloomy utilitarian notion of learning. He was horrified by adults who peddled the monstrous idea that knowledge was merely a means to achieving an end, rather than as a glorious discovery in itself.
He had been taught by a crusty old schoolmaster, a relic who had been born and lived his entire life in the village, only leaving twice as far as anyone knew, once, to visit an ill relative, and on a second occasion to attend his absent father’s funeral. The schoolmaster was a man who had assimilated the permanency of his surroundings, his grey pallor and stolid frame finding empathy with the obdurate local stonework that had magnanimously aged beside him. He had taught Healy and the generations of children in the same Spartan manner in which he had lived, handling delicate facts with a solemnity and detachment more usual for an embalmer of dead bodies. It was not just his fault that Healy had developed a gnawing sense of conflict between what he was being taught and what he felt he needed to learn.
However, not all of his schooling was a hopeless waste of dreamtime, for he loved the arrival of new words that he discovered in his studies, ones that even collaborated in his daydreaming, excitedly describing and cataloguing his adventures in ever-greater descriptive hues. Craft and arts were also a revelation as he learnt to instruct his hands to become the faithful servants of his imagination by way of paints, clays, wood and metal. He even began to sense in a clumsy, childlike way, how dignifying it was to transform his thoughts into something solid, even experiencing a sensation that might have been the joy of generosity in that others might take pleasure in these creations. Lastly, he had eaten voraciously upon the dusty food of history, humbled by the immense shadows that long since dead men had cast upon the present, provoking yet another opportunity to dream as he had wondered as to the size of shadow he might make.
But daydreaming and imaginative wanderings had left him ill prepared for the day of expulsion from this untroubled Eden. He had rudely discovered how everything was different outside the lush walls of his childhood world and remembered the disorientation he felt as he tried to apply the same juvenile tools of reasoning, ones he occasionally had used upon the truths and customs of his youthful adventures, upon the realities of his new adult world, and found them wholly inadequate. He had begrudgingly absorbed a new lexicon of responses to life, such as insincerity, manipulation and duplicity, ones that had been more concentrically entrenched for each mile he ventured forth from his forests, with each new acquaintance he had made. It tired him enormously and on many occasions in later years, cowed by the titans named expectation, duty and fortitude that strode so resolutely across the terrain of adulthood, he had sought the hidden doorway back to his childish home. To the place that was covered in an amnesia as thick as moss that led into the tranquil fields of his childhood, desirous for a brief respite - a second only he had promised himself- so he could once more taste an exquisite drop of childish nothingness.
Whiskers and sullenness had announced that adulthood had arrived, and after acknowledging with great reluctance that it would be a permanent condition, he had lent some thought to the hazy notions of how he might be able to earn a living. He briefly fantasised upon the life of a sannyasi, of having as much courage and integrity as Diogenes, of anathematizing possession and desire, and living like a savage in his beloved forest, before his culture officiously stymied the idea and directed him in its proper way. Suitably chastened, Healy was forced to consider what skills he actually possessed, what use society might have for him and how hard he might be willing to work to achieve the painfully vague expectations of life that he harboured. His parents were predictably adult-like and made harsh and bromide references to consequence and responsibility, confirming in Healy’s mind the futility of choosing which one of Hobson’s mares he might ride out to life upon.
But the indoctrination of his parents and his society were stronger, and he was forced to listen, forced to accept the mantra of work, earn, contribute, endure. It made sure Healy tried harder. He spent an inordinate time debating with himself as to whether it was relevant that any future work might be enjoyable or meaningful. Whether he might tolerate for any period of time longer than a rain-shower, or a departing sun –his usual parameters of attention- what he could commit himself to.
Still, he proudly insisted upon some rules; he had known his future life must be creative, it must be solitary, it must be dignifying, it must allow him the scope for ingenuity, it must allow him self-sufficiency. All these seemed modest demands to make for what would be a lifetimes effort in pursuit of society’s goals. Reluctantly he had begun to scan the environment for a manner in which it could be achieved.
Eventually he announced to the horror of his parents that he would paint. He had been told so many times that he had a talent for drawing and therefore appealed to –and certainly not for the last time- this endorsement of others to why he might perform and act in any particular way. He spent precious months poring over the works of men whom he knew as “Those who had cast great shadows,” paying special attention to those who had excelled in his favoured disciplines of reflective contemplation and imaginative escapism. He studiously analysed their techniques and inspirations, searching for the eternal secret as to how the artist performs the Eucharistic miracle upon inanimate form, where through his touch it acquires meaning, life and symbol. The more Healy looked upon creation, the more it seemed self-evident that this would be the only opportunity through which he might achieve any manner of self-mastery, any chance to create a life’s goal and realise his own path towards it.
An artistic life also seemed a perfect alibi for many of the maladies and paradoxes of his character. His ill discipline and occasional indolence might be validated by the whimsical habits of the artist who alone commanded when the time was ripe for effort. By being an artist, he could continue to selfishly guard the truths he had first learned in the solitude of his childhood, ennobling them now as the subjective treasures of a creative mind, ones that provided the only legitimate vehicle of truth. He could claim that his natural taciturnity and aloofness were merely the burdens of a thoughtful character that was unable to articulate itself conventionally. And most of all, he would no longer need to experience the limitation of word, a tool that was often so sadly deficient at depicting and describing his ineffable kaleidoscopic visions.
However, if he had believed that self-expression would liberate him from much of the mundane and tiresome aspects of life, he was soon given a sobering lesson. Art required a disciplined application; tools to be bought, a roof to live and work beneath, an ability to interact with people who might at least be useful for the transmission of his notoriety. Art also demanded an erudite philosophy to explain -at least internally - the meaning that his hands had set forth, as creativity otherwise spoke in torturous riddles, riddles that would exile him further from his peers, making their speech an incomprehensible babel to him, and his to them.
Once he had committed himself to this life, he had initially struggled with the concept of magnanimity and how he might learn to begrudgingly accept the tatty scrapes of comment other people might offer. How he had been angry that the words he uttered, those that described the beauties he thought he alone had discovered, belonged equally to others. How indignant he felt when he had heard such exquisite words as great or perfect, being hackneyed and desecrated by people who could never in their miserable lifetimes devote the emotional effort required to glimpse upon them. But despite these burdens, he knew he was too selfish to be anything other than a loner.
Healy had thus set forth upon a privileged life of pain and suffering, one that afforded him the opportunity to sell his most precious, innermost visions to people who had neither the time nor inclination to sketch their own view of the world around them. He painted the themes of life that resonated for him, an abstract, torturous depiction of ideas and thoughts that haunted his psyche and achieved some measure of success, assuming that success was measured by other people’s approval, and he had even grown fond of the concept of receiving money for his work as a form of applause. Eventually he had felt sufficiently skilled in the science of sociability to enter into friendships and relationships, in due course trying his guileless hand at love. And there it might of ended, an inertial life, one that had never cast the shadows he had once dreamed of making whilst waiting for death in occasionally pleasant salubrity, until he had his own Pauline moment, one of such devastating clarity that it demanded what amounted to a re-birth.
It had happened on a cold and gloomy autumnal morning, when a particularly irascible northern wind rampaged around his expensively manicured garden, petulantly throwing his girlfriends garden ornaments around and generally making the day unappetising. He had stood at the window, punctiliously rearranging the ornate Moroccan daggers that someone had thoughtlessly pointed in the wrong direction, watching a nearby birch writhe and wail, its branches clinging frantically to its chattels, the rusting red and gold leaves that were in constant danger of being torn away by such a blustery thief.
He had spent much of the morning working through his repertoire of pained facial expressions, exaggerated body movements and plaintive utterances as he waited for something to motivate him to action, something to spur the first qualitative idea of the day. Nothing seemed to be working as his apathy fed upon the inclement and miserable climes, casting his mood into darkness indistinguishable from the clouds that hung above his home. The rain fell with Biblical force, yet still nothing had inspired him, and Healy had felt furrows upon on his brow, ones as deep and regular as the corrugated roof of his battered garden shed, forming in bleak anticipation of a wasted day in his studio, worse, another wasted day of life.
He had looked over at the breakfast table, appraising the scene and secretly hoping that some nugget of activity might offer him diversion. He had re-read a letter from his gallery, one that had reminded him of his obligation to finish more paintings, unctuously suggestive that they, the gallery, would prefer more work in the same style as his previous collection, a collection that had been the most financially successful to date. Healy had felt it was a request that debased him as an artist, treating his creativity as though it was some industrial tool, an idea that had only contributed to the morning’s irritability.
He looked over at his girlfriend happily ensconced at the table, feet pulled up beneath her and sipping a milky coffee that had left a white moustache on her lip as she read the newspaper without comment or discernible interest. He had made his way to the table and gave the newspaper a cursory glance at which moment a particularly incendiary headline had grabbed his attention. Healy had rudely snatched the page from his girlfriend, who after two turbulent years together had become accustomed to such histrionics when he was bored and listened indifferently as he scanned the story whilst uttering a well-rehearsed litany of complaints.
She had sipped her coffee and mulled over the different types of jams on the table, confident that Healy’s foul mood would pass as assuredly as the weather that howled outside. Healy had cursed some more and demanded she acknowledge that the story merely confirmed he had been right all along, that his observation that bad governance, idiotic thinking and a rotten culture had wrought misery upon the entire country and its people. She lazily concurred as she sipped more coffee and lent across the table to tear off another piece of croissant that had retained a little warmth due to her wrapping it in one of the napkins she had bought the month before.
In the absence of anything of particular, or personal interest on that morning, Healy, as he was want to do, had voluntarily accepted the tribulations of mankind as his individual responsibility. He remembered that he had tried to alert his girlfriend as to the imminent collapse of western civilization and that she had answered with some anodyne response that he shouldn’t let such things upset him, which Healy had felt was a wholly inadequate response to such cataclysmic events. He had admonished her for such apathy, warning her that the time for irresoluteness was over. Everything, everything he had shouted, had repercussions and she, they, everyone, would have to live amongst the smashed ruins of a culture that had been perverted by greed, sloth, mediocrity, formulaic plagiarism and mindless banality. He had demanded a more passionate response.
Healy remembered that he had ranted to such an extent that his girlfriend’s usually docile mien had worn an expression of alarm. He had spoken of his hatred -yes, that divine loathing that required every bit as much industry and dedication as its saccharine cousin, love- of the presumed architects of everything he thought was wrong. A litany of vandals, criminals and miscreants who forged such a fetid zeitgeist were named and maligned. A generation of politicians who genuinely believed their interference in your life would be beneficial, business leaders who somehow imagined the entire ineffable human drama could be viewed through the paradigm of possession and a flow-chart. Educationalists who prepared the future generations merely as economic foot-soldiers rather than curious, enlightened individuals. Nauseating celebrities who were an accurate barometer of the decline of not just a nation, but of a species, loathsome advertisers who were willing to peddle anything regardless of the superfluous nature of the product and the misery caused by unprincipled desire. With misanthropic zeal, Healy placed everyone within his dystopian gun sights.
Healy had stood ominously above his girlfriend and demanded that she share his disgust at the manner in which modern living was conducted. He had spoken of his embarrassment that if the quotidian news, full of sanctimony, redistributionary malice and veneration of averageness were the culmination of centuries of conflict -conflicts of principle by comparison- that had sought to curtail the silliness of priests, the bombast of princes and loathsomeness of demagogues, then he concluded there was something drastically wrong.
Healy remembered how he had walked menacingly around the breakfast table, a piece of toast in one hand, a knife in the other, oratorically addressing himself to anything other than his terrified girlfriend. He had invited her to mourn the untimely deaths of Faith and Shame, noble ideas slain by an assassin’s hand, two rather private and priceless concepts, one’s that had moderated people’s selfishness and had only been replaced by licentiousness. The new mantra, shouted Healy, was Fun, Self-Expression and Getting-Ahead, and it was a doctrine that had no end of sponsors. Healy had flung the newspaper down for the third time. He cursed the hacks who slavishly repeated the lies of politicians, ones who used faux compassion as nothing other than a tool for saving their jobs and generating unmerited applause. He railed against financial neophytes who spoke earnestly of prices and spiralling costs, though seemed ignorant of the fact that the word ’value’ had been hijacked long before by a shameless clique of criminals who had successfully detached it from any tangible meaning. In a moment of blissful, deranged ecstasy, Healy had cursed the leaders and commentators who had flung themselves and their followers upon an altar inscribed with the canonical text of Progress and Accumulation, before finally condemning the whole experiment of societal living and mutual cooperation as a waste of both emotional and creative resources. Breathless after such a tirade, he had looked upon the dreary rewards of a bourgeois existence, his charming home, the pretty breakfast crockery, his blandly satiated girlfriend, the beautifully packaged teas and jams that were his auroral delectations, and Healy had simply asked; Why?
His poor girlfriend, a pretty thing who was otherwise wonderfully competent in the elemental requirements of a relationship, was ashen faced, her handsome mouth hung open. Healy gulped, mumbled an apology as he mechanically placed his cutlery on the side of his plate, before hurrying out the room. He had even terrified himself on that particular morning. He had fled to his studio, fled to a solitudinous space within himself, a morally sterile environment away from the contamination of other people’s ideas and values, a place in which he could perform as brutal a vivisection upon his life as he might bare.
Had there been an event that marked the Rubicon wondered Healy, one to make him so detached, so antagonistic towards the society and culture that had reared him? He loved and admired so much about his culture. He devoured western literature and art, was in awe of the genius of its composers, performers and artisans. He was fascinated by its thinkers, humbled by its military leaders and occasionally impressed by its kings and leaders. But latent within this richness was the travesty of the present. All had taken silver; all were culpable in the betrayal of such a glorious heritage. Healy, like most people had chosen comfort before integrity and was therefore equally damnable. But his desire for comfort had been incongruous with his inability to fit in and empathize with other people.
His first confession on that infamous morning, when all was swept away, was that he was too selfish to live in society, that he had been unwilling to ever share a single one of the finite moments that would be his life upon the idiotic, yet wholly legitimate, concerns and desires of others. He had taken a sheet of paper and written Selfish, at the top of the page, followed by Unsympathetic below it. He had vowed not to leave the studio until all was revealed.
He had clambered high above the inconsequential aspects of his existence and from such a vantage point had viewed the entirety of his past, present and probable future as a congruent, seamless whole. He had hidden his face in shame after admitting to his judge-conscience that his life had been one that drifted aimlessly upon a crude, deterministic stream that bore few torrents, one that was happily nourished on a few meagre scrapes of independence that were his acquisitions and ostensible self-employment, as though they were the only litmus of autonomy. His humiliation turned to contempt as the narrative illustrated in cruelly bleak imagery the compromises he had welcomed into his heart despite the oft-silenced protests of his amour-prope.
To the alarm of his girlfriend, he had spent a couple of days in such a wilderness, before reluctantly returning to a sensible world he no longer felt connected with, a physical return though now accompanied by a dark morosity that was thereafter his permanent attendant. From that moment on, anomie prowled around his mood with apt felinity, appearing and disappearing with stealthy irregularity. His nemesis, Time, was even concerned as to his behaviour and contrived to placate him, reminding Healy that he had no idea as to the length of yarn Lachesis had allotted him, entreating him that he might not be panicked into ever-greater absurdities as he already bore the wounds of vain regrets and unfinished projects.
And so, for the next few weeks Healy had wrestled with a discontent that hid its face and refused to be named, all the while his superego patiently waiting for the spark that would detonate the old life he knew was unworthy, but which fear of newness still protected. His dissatisfaction finally coalesced around the arrival of a single grey hair that appeared audaciously and unsolicited above his left ear, which he espied one morning whilst shaving, a cruel branding that whispered the terrifying news of his mortality. News of his forthcoming demise demanded some kind of urgent and irrational response. He only knew that his unhappy life could not be allowed to persist any longer. He tried to calm his boisterous emotions as accusations and recriminations howled their charges like angry plaintiffs. He rejected Despair as she was only temporarily effective and was anyway unedifying, and calmed the furious voices of Fault and Blame as unhelpful in his present state; he nodded respectfully towards Faith but recoiled in horror at her terms. Instead he stood meekly before Destiny and asked of her what was to be done.
She rebuked him for his previous infidelity, though admittedly in a gentle manner as she had as much interest in Healy as much as any man. Tired and exhausted, he sat before Destiny and with a clarity of vision, one by virtue of her foresight, she explained to Healy in enigmatic and veiled detail the glorious future that he might entertain up to the moment of his inevitable death.
His first task had been to destroy every single rule and custom, every apparent word of wisdom that he had inherited and lived beneath the tutelage of since his first awareness. Under such instruction, he had built a funeral pyre at the highest point within his consciousness and pilled every old truth upon it, knowing they would have to perish before he could authenticate any of them anew. God was first to leave, guilty of divinizing anything that was good within Healy, as though virtue or goodness were gifts that He alone might allocate rather than be rewards one earned from performing life’s adventures well. All others had soon followed; Tolerance, that pitiful notion that insisted we endure another’s poor behaviour and call that acquiescence a virtue, rather than demanding that each other’s acts are those we would wish were done to us in the first place. Sympathy and Compassion; harlots that permitted man to gain merit without skill or labour were expelled with similar haste. Duty too was ejected, an apologist for any number of unspeakable miseries as it demanded unquestionable obedience to someone else’s truth. Temperance was an irritating old maid who was incognizant of the exquisite fruit of intoxication. Healy would have liked to see the deserved expulsion of the conceited duo, Reason and Rationality, whose smug and monstrous belief that by adhering to colourless and stale formulas one could find meaning to life had cast a sterile cloak upon many-a-life. He had merely put them on notice that in future they would be the handmaidens of every delicious ad hominem demand. He basked in this glorious midday, this Great Midday that bore no shadows.
Inevitably, friendships, loves and social ties had wilted under the ruthless blows of such lucidity, as Healy’s victims, Tolerance, Duty, Compassion, et al, had been the very twine which socialized man, permitting him to endure another. But Healy had wanted rid of the company of every man and woman, of the very others he had begun to perceive nauseously, the others who were responsible for electing the idiots, creating the rotten culture, for promoting the values, for erecting the walls that curtailed his ability to live the life that he had promised himself. Hell really was others! And with every departure he felt the lifting of the debilitating debt of fealty, of the debilitating emotion of possession, and once gone, once he was alone, Healy began to feel free, to feel colossal.
After such a nihilistic destruction of his past, he started the arduous task of rebuilding his self. Conscious of the need to break with everything from a life that was unacceptable, he started scouring the globe for a new place to call home, a place that his untrustworthy memory could not appeal to. He sought a new environment of exciting stimulations, a place where he might live cheek by jowl with new ideas no matter how heinous the ideas might be. He wanted to share a home amongst raw emotions that still managed to provoke sublime irrationality, with earnest people whose slowness was considered a blessing, people deaf to the threats and lamentations of Time, whose bastard children, precision and efficiency, might provoke equal bafflement.
In view of such criteria, and after studying the chaotic places around the globe, places where the State was less ambitious, or at least more indolent and bovine, he had found himself in Old Havana. Upon an island where much of modernity had been uninvited, amid the promise of an entropic State whose employees, he hoped, were too demoralized by years of repeating mindless slogans to care as to whether he might over-stay his visa.
Healy returned to the present. The rude mattress fingered his naked body, its lumpy fabric unresponsive to his appeal for calm. He brought the cigarette back to his lips and felt the filter relax upon the most parsimonious of smiles that had broken upon his face as the imprecise scent of his sometime girlfriend’s perfume had conjured up her recollection. He remembered that she had been there the night before, that they had argued and that she had left. He struggled to remember the cause of yet another fight, but its triviality cast a cloak of amnesia upon the episode. He drew deeply on his cigarette, the strong tobacco smell rendering her olfactory presence as pitifully brief as he imagined her emotional one was upon his heart. Healy boasted vaingloriously to himself that he was self-sufficient, that he had so many things to keep him occupied, that he was so desirable in a country where everyone was for sale. He told himself he needn’t think of loneliness. Healy extinguished the third timepiece of the day.
He glanced at the scribbled notes that lay beside the book. He had written sometime before that Spinoza’s god was pantheistic -present in all matter-and recalled the brief exhilaration he had felt at the notion of the divine being within him. He had wondered how Spinoza, one of the supreme ethicists the West had ever produced, might have dealt with the perplexities of modern life.
Spinoza imagined all individuals and separate bodies as being merely adjectival, terms that facilitated speech and understanding, but ignorant of the eternal whole. It was a concept, thought Healy, though literarily beautiful, even theoretically attractive, was practically redundant. Rather than an abstract idea, one that can easily be condemned, how wondered Healy, would Spinoza have dealt with the actuality of injustice? The fact that man lived in solitude, that the individual lived and felt alone. Only the individual could really feel the elation or pain that would be their private responses to the things they saw around them. Spinoza had felt that the anomalies of individual beings would be nullified by eternity, an infinity of time that rendered all aberrations meaningless by the final purpose of the universe.
Yet tears really did flow across the faces of injured people. Emaciated bodies due to evil men using starvation as a tool of governance were real and unendurable. Living in a society that presents an idealized image of what a ‘good’ life should entail, but then that same society flagrantly neglecting to arm its citizens with the necessary tools of achieving that particular form of ‘good’. An individual felt every ill of existence with the greatest clarity, the greatest honestly. Epicurus had presented a simple formula; justice consisting of the ability to act so as not to have occasion to fear another man’s resentment. It was that simple, yet man had seemingly lived in opposition to such a truth.
Healy re-read his notes which were as chaotic and unfathomable as his madly fluctuating moods. He had written in complete contrast to the sympathetic earlier passage, that ‘assuming the validity of societal living, at what point does one persons dereliction of duty, a duty towards self-actualization, of entelechy, make that person unfit to be a recipient of aid and compassion?’ He had further scribbled ‘The ethic of reciprocity has a long and illustrious history, with virtually every culture acknowledging it as a crucial element of collective living.’
Luke and Mathew are explicit, yet there is no decisive conclusion as to the fate of miscreants. What worldly obligation do we have to people who are unwilling to return a good deed to one’s peers? If common values are the only language that unites man, the only thing that makes one man comprehensible to another, then people who refuse to accept even the most basic principles must necessarily be excluded from society. Even then society was unsure what to do, or even how to identify the offenders within its mist. Was anti-social behaviour a flaw of the individual, or a flaw of the society that gave birth to that person? The evidence was confusing and open to many ideological explanations.
Healy wondered whether Spinoza had ever looked up from polishing his lenses to see the poverty of an individual life whose duration was unendurably long and painful and was caused by the absence of justice. Justice had to be real and tangible, attainable for that particular person, and attainable during that person’s life. To suggest that the suffering of today was the necessary compost from which the utopia of tomorrow might arise was grotesque.
Healy flicked through his notebook. A central theme of Spinoza’s philosophy was his earnest appeal that each man should substitute negative thoughts and their subsequent debilitating emotions with more positive ones; instead of feeling hate towards someone, show love or magnanimity. Perfectly admirable and certainly a recipe for a better world, thought Healy, though surely the trade would have to be one of similar values or intensities, as the darker emotions of anger and loathing were obviously far more vivid and powerful than insipid compassion, or unedifying pity? Healy re-read the scribbled notes from a previous musing; probably suffering the intoxication of an indulgent audience, when he had madly scrawled that he would be unable to exchange an exquisite revulsion, for such a paltry remuneration as a smile.
However, in the days, or weeks since his Spinozarean revelation he had occasionally attempted his techniques, rummaging through the treasure chest in which he kept his happiest memories to find an unsophisticated happiness or infantile joy from his childhood. And whenever confronted with any of the litany of tribulations that life was heir to, he would look amongst these souvenirs to find a good and hold it up triumphantly, like a head of Medusa before his pains, then watch as they would flee and he could bask in the warm glow of ephemeral contentment. But they had never been properly vanquished and simply came back at the earliest opportunity to torture not only his waking moments, but his restless nights too.
Healy thought it was impossible to ignore the insatiable human appetite for redress. It was inherent within the western-Judeo-Christian heritage, from Anaximander through Enoch to Mathew there was an explicit eschatological threat that was issued by the self-proclaimed righteous. They, “the elect’, or “righteous” had themselves defined “the good” and decided who would live in ever-lasing bliss and who were the reprobate to be condemned to ever-lasting torment. They had embraced the whole notion of free will, a terrible deceit, simply so blame could be assigned and punishment administered. All had failed as miserably as Healy to embrace Spinoza and his ideal of magnanimity. Thankfully, thought Healy there were good people on the earth, one of whom was his girlfriend, a magnanimous being who implored him to love her, to love life, to love their life. She had challenged him to love other people, to see the good that people often did, to understand that for there to be goodness, there needed to be good people.
So he had promised, despite his scepticism and reservations, to continue trying Spinoza’s methods whenever he encountered the phantoms that dwelt within the cavernous depths of his unconsciousness. He would find a good to combat his ills; his lack of empathy, his inability to love another human being, the absence of any faith and failure to understand the simplest of life‘s rituals. Even the terrible, vast abyss in the centre of his being that should have been filled with meaning.
Healy lit another cigarette and inhaled the full measure of its amiable warmth as he re-read his notes. He tried valiantly to reconstruct the train of thought upon which he had travelled the previous night; a construction he triumphantly imagined might decipher the thrust of Spinoza’s cosmology and whether it had any useful application upon his own life. Spinoza had viewed life, history, objects and one’s selves as indissoluble parts of a seamless eternal whole, rejecting the arbitrary lines and boundaries that man had constructed around things as though it were arbitrary lines that gave substantiality to everything.
It was an idea from antiquity, an idea that Form meant things, as only form might confer substantiality upon an unruly mass of matter. Matter could only achieve ‘thinghood’ by possessing a defined shape and Healy admitted that he had too easily accepted such a dusty hypothesis about forms, one that delineated matter and ideas and facilitated the way one saw the world, saw it in easily distinguishable pieces so that we might lazily comprehend its nature. It was a simple case of man’s unimaginative desire to hold his own possessions closer to his breast so that he might be able to pronounce with greater clarity the ghastly word mine, a word that had had such an inglorious history.
Healy had strained to conceptualize Spinoza’s universe and sweep of history, it’s beautiful idea of unity and harmony, and his own role, at once both great and infinitesimal, as both subject and object, amongst its wholeness. He had found himself in a pleasant dream state where he felt himself drifting blissfully towards henosis and luxuriated in the temptation of being part of Spinoza’s erudite, eternal whole, whose recurrent cycle of events made the notions of both time and death obsolete, removing the significance of we, me, they.
Forever would be a concept that everyone and everything could participate within, and Healy remembered briefly caressing the word immortality; a word that promised an explanation for the inconsequential life he had lived and as a panacea for the terror he sometimes felt in anticipation of the eternal nothingness that would be death. But as so often had happened in his life, he had failed the test of faith, the sympathetic contemplation that was the prerequisite of belief had vanished as he recoiled at the thought of sharing his life experiences with an undeserving humanity. Of receiving a greater part than he deserved for all the wickedness that man had displayed since his expulsion from Eden.
He had drawn a larger than necessary question mark after the sentence, testament to the scepticism he had felt at the above statement.
Healy gave a large sigh at the thought of the hard work ahead and gratefully accepted a momentarily lapse of concentration as his attention was caught by patch of mould that was creeping slowly over a large corner of the ceiling. The house in which he stayed would have once belonged to one of Havana’s wealthy families. Fifty years of indifference, Communist lies and cobwebs had not been able to extirpate the smell of privilege that had been crafted into the balusters and ornate ceilings, and Healy wondered whether the original family had wallowed in their luxury with sufficient insensitivity to have provoked the equally loathsome revolutionaries into terrifying revenge. He doubted if any of the islands elites had felt their responsibilities extended any further than Baudelaire’s recipe of calm, ordre, luxe et volupte, and if so, had they not deserved their fate of now living amongst the eviscerated carcasses of their once grand homes. Worse, inherited by barbarians who desecrated them with witless propaganda in the windows in place of fine silk curtains and unsightly clothing that hung proudly over the cast-iron railings, whose weaving patterns decorated the balconies from which the rich had once viewed injustice. He wondered whether justice, in its imperfect, clumsy way had finally been served.
Healy flicked a winding serpentine ash trail that had grown from the forgotten cigarette onto the floor, and wondered what obligations, if any, were inherent with the privilege of wealth. Assuming that notions such as fair and just would forever attract derision, then the bare minimum the wealthy owed mankind was that their immoderation might be conducted with exquisite taste, sensitivity, and aesthetic devotion. That was the litmus, thought Healy, for while the rich might have the legitimacy of history on their side -as history had always tolerated injustice and the rich had always trampled with arrogant disdain over the bodies of the oppressed- then they should have had the good grace to whisper to the poor that their decadence was genuinely in the service of a God whose name was Beauty, whose diaphanous image even they bowed humbly before.
But Healy doubted whether the islands rich had shown any such humility. True, they had lived amongst some of the most stunning architecture in the new world, but they had shown as little consideration as their peers from the Old World. Noblesse oblige should have demanded that the privileged not only lived well, but also lived well with panache, an aestheticism worthy of Huysmans’ Des Esseintes. At least he seemed to have a sense of obligation, reasoned Healy.
As the nineteenth century toiled forth, and whilst other Latin-American countries had thrown off the yoke of monarchical servitude and religious backwardness, Cuba was given the motto La Siempre Fidelisima Isla by the Spanish Crown, as dreadful a sobriquet as one might ever be awarded, mused Healy mirthlessly. Eventually the national hero, José Marti, invaded the island, was quickly killed and immortalized, but not before provoking Spanish soldiers into killing over a quarter of a million civilians, mostly in the prototype of the twentieth century’s most hideous and iconic monument; the Concentration Camp. Within a few years, the US battleship Maine was sunk in Havana Bay, and the yellow press -not for the last time in history- managed to incite an equally gullible President and public into war. The Spanish were roundly beaten, a few of their possessions, Guam, Puerto Rico and The Philippines were bought by the victors for twenty million dollars, without much reflection as to whether whole peoples, their lands and homes could be considered as mere chattels that might be exchanged as rewards of martial aptitude.
With all sorts of caveats, the US reluctantly granted independence to Cuba, which subsequently fumbled its first election thereby encouraging its powerful neighbour to intercede. Such an inauspicious start was merely a prelude to a half-century of benign oppression, as clueless oligarchs stumbled through balmy decades intoxicated by their own pomposity, all the while encouraging similarly repulsive priests to murmur words of consolation to the hordes of the God’s invisibles.
Mobsters arrived from the north, built casinos and brazenly held a conference at the legendry Hotel Nacional preaching an equally mendacious psalm that money did not need to be earned and could be gotten by force, or luck, a commodity that until then had eluded the island. Eventually their excesses, the priestly lies and class-based serfdom broke the patience of the people.
The ghastly clerics had packed away their vaudeville rituals, their stale two thousand year old moralities and went in search of greater ignorance, the gangsters moved from the casinos to the government buildings and the islands iniquities were bartered for the malignant deception of socialism. Healy gave an imperceptible shrug as he wondered what culpability an individual, or even worse, an individual’s descendent, had for the misfortunes of history. Was it Great Men that forged events wondered Healy, or were they themselves like helpless twigs upon the turbulent waters of a river of causal forces? And if so, if every event of history was caused by the inexorable forces of its precedent moment then surely we received the society, the culture, and form of governance that we deserved, as we were the sons and daughters of our parents. Men and women as members of societies, as Rousseau’s General Will by their strivings and yearnings, were that tumultuous river of causal force. There was no denying each and every man’s culpability.
This was how Healy had spent so much of his inconsequential life. Giving time and effort to every inane and trivial thought that came along. So many viewpoints clambering for attention, he gave them all a fair hearing. He pondered and thought, dissected and mused, asked a million questions and received no conclusive answer. Regardless of his fatigue, or incomprehension, the questioning never ceased, and despite the ventriloquial quality, Healy had always been unclear as to who might be the true author of such rude inquiry. He had always done it he conceded. Always asked why, and though he had initially been indignant that this inquiring voice had sought to disturb the orderliness of a life that coveted neither the transcendental, nor specious meaning, he continued to indulge his musings. The bouts of examination continued until Healy felt obliged to look for enlightenment, pleading the assistance of long-dead authors to shed light and meaning upon the uneventful events, the unremarkable responses and non- monuments that had been the landscape of his life.
Healy looked at the piles of books that lay scattered around the bed; books he had hoped would provide some direction to a life he knew was floundering in a miasmic broth, one without reason, or purpose. He had been in Havana for over two years, had poured over the pages of knowledge, studying like an exegete the wisdom that oozed from every sheet, but was still no wiser nor closer to eternal truth. All the authors had offered equally plausible, yet almost always divergent paths to truth. Healy had not even perfected the art of meditative thinking, and at times had even begun to fear the inactivity he had once cherished, as the achingly quiet moments often lapsed into a gruesome post-mortem upon every unedifying moment of his life.
How many days and nights had he peered down upon his existence, watching an unfinished performance whose characters acted with restless frustration, recoiling in horror as a pack of wolf-like creatures named impermanence, anonymity and futility ate carnivorously upon the carcass of his non-achievement? Each forgettable episode of his life had opened, revealed itself and closed without casting any shadows or having any consequences. True, he had always loved indulging his senses, his intellect and imagination, had been grateful of a sensitivity that permitted himself to feel and love, to smell and taste, to think and imagine from a rarefied altitude, but from all this he had created nothing that would outlive him. Death would come one day and Healy wanted more than anything, that from his puny body he might cry out and be heard by someone in this enormous universe, that not only had he once lived, but that the monument before them bore his name and told them why he had lived.
Healy smiled again, his fourth that morning, as he thought of the kind of benediction he sought and the likelihood that it would exile him even further from the company of his fellow men. The smile immediately dissolved from his face to be replaced by an anguished grimace as he thought of the terrifyingly powerful words ‘depart from me ye cursed’ and instinctively pulled the sheets closer around him. As though Mathew’s narration of God’s wrath was intended solely against him, for was his crime of excessive pride – the desire to be self-sufficient- not so equally conceited? His muscles tensed as he remembered how he had reacted to the initial realization that the life he had accepted from destiny would be truly solitary. He had panicked, climbing to the highest peaks of his consciousness to cry out loud that he had not chosen this conceit, this penitential isolation, that it was loneliness itself that had actually chosen him, as though by some wicked deterministic trick. He had prostrated himself before this terror and promised to abide by the rules of society if only society would let him back into its bosom. He had so much wanted to belong.
But his courage had eventually returned and he had dutifully risen to the challenge of the existence that he had been allotted, his dignity appalled at the notion of a lifetimes hiding behind an inherited truth, or a cowardly deterministic explanation. No, he had accepted the privilege of being independent and would accept whatever consequences there might be. He vowed to make the episodes of his life begin with “I” and that the tapestry of his existence would be embroidered solely with the rich threads of volition and choice. He had trembled in admiration at Satan’s defiant assertion of self-sufficiency: Non servium and promised that he would equally not serve. Not serve truths, whether social, cultural, or religious, that he himself had not first validated.
The first few weeks had been anticlimactic. No text existed as to how he might proceed and he therefore rejected all contact apart from the necrophilous company of his mentors, unsure as to whether the remotest wish for living company would represent a form of dependency that might shatter his resolve. He had rarely risen before dark and had spent his days reading and re-reading the score of books that had accompanied him into exile, dissecting the words and attempting to mine the deepest caverns of their meaning. He had staggered in wonder amongst the totemic ideas of history, some that had afforded no place for God, and in the theatre of his mind, had indulged in a celebratory orgy of vices at having consigned his earlier religiosity to a childish period of his life, an episode that was embarrassing for its immaturity and fearfulness. He no longer dreaded a god that would pry into his life, no longer felt shame and guilt that his ignoble deeds and thoughts had been viewed and damned. Healy was an enthusiastic pupil and gave everyone his or her chance. He was prepared to listen to every great thinker, writer or poet who had had the courage to ask why?
A knock at the door interrupted his thoughts.
It was the owner of the house where he lodged. They had had a passionless affair some time after his arrival, he motivated by nothing more than a cursory inspection of his new symbiotic conditions, she, he assumed, by a belief that it was a courtesy foreigners expected of their hosts. It had been interrupted when her husband had come back from his work at one of the costal resorts, before formally having had a stake driven through its lustful heart when Healy had started to bring home his own Cuban catch. The relationship was now one of awkward glances, perfunctory greetings and pecuniary timeliness.
“Senor Healy, do want you breakfast”?
He avoided taking meals in the house which were additional to his rent, not because of the exorbitant price she charged for any product that she and her husband didn’t care for, nor the sordidness of their memories that weighed heavily upon their infrequent meetings, but simply because she was an awful cook. When the government permitted a handful of residences to operate as guesthouses, these new entrepreneurs were unencumbered by any notion of customer satisfaction. A whole vocabulary of phrases that the West had invented to offer signposts for businesspersons as to the satisfactoriness of his product had been left unlearnt, replaced instead by an inept execution of any service, unclothed by the language of good and bad.
“No, gracias” replied Healy towards the door as he stubbed out his latest cigarette into a pile of butts that lay chaotically in a hand-cast saucer, one which his landlady had left beside his bed, probably in some clumsy attempt at decoration, which Healy had insensitively used as an ashtray, the latest addition merely disturbing the heap, causing it to spew-out its fetid staleness.
The interruption provoked him into action and Healy threw off the bed sheets in an exaggerated display of eagerness to begin the new day, and lurching on still sleep-ridden legs he stumbled towards the chest of drawers that housed his meagre belongings. He grabbed his wash kit and towel and opened the bedroom door. Conscious of his nakedness, he smiled slyly as he caught sight of his landlady looking covetously upon him as he entered the bathroom and turned on the shower. Hot water was a rarity, especially at the hours he awoke, and he suffered his customary moment of trepidation as he braced himself for the imminent chastisement of a cold shower.
He gasped as the icy water lashed his weak and pampered body, and proceeded with improper haste to conclude the ritual of bathing. His memory, as was oft inclined, mischievously conjured recollections of the salubrious baths he had taken whilst in the West, where a leisurely hour might be spent with smokes and a newspaper. Exiting only, once his skin resembled an ashen prune before immersing himself in the luxuriant softness of a towel and dressing gown he might have had the foresight to have lain upon the heater an hour before. These unspeakable memories lay in wait for him at all moments of the day, ready to ambush his attempts at Spartan solitude and remind him of an incarnation he had vowed to forget. He had marvelled at how Saint Jerome had entered his hermitage in search of truth after renouncing a life of superficial luxury, accompanied only with his library of Cicero and his desire to reflect upon the meaning of his life. Healy had promised himself that whoever claimed his soul, whether it might be religion, aestheticism, rationalism, or even communism, that he would attempt the same devotional service to it that the good Doctor had shown towards his beliefs.
He straightened the mirror that had made the face opposite stare at him in a quirky, lop-sided way and allowed the razor to wander across his face without the slightest hint of menace. Healy looked at the face that filled the mirror in front of him. Its skin was not only a bronze colour, but had started to stretch thinly across its bony frame, a sign of his advancing years. His hair was long and evidently unfamiliar with grooming as it sprawled in a dozen different directions whilst the mouth around which the razor skated, was large though often pursed and tense. The blue laconic eyes that gazed back at him could still on occasion sparkle and administer warmth and appreciation to those on which they settled, but were of late so often lugubrious. In all, it was a face that might be considered attractive.
Dressing was as quick and simple as usual thanks to the brevity of his wardrobe. He had arrived with two pairs of jeans, one pair of sneakers and a pair of shoes that he kept in case he had to appear in front of the authorities to explain why he had over-stayed his visa. The only concession to his previous fondness for beautiful things was the dozen shirts that hung like sentinels guarding the memory of a consumerist life where temptation had hung in every shop window. It occasionally caused him distress as though indulging in a recidivist act of deviancy, but he really loved his shirts. Once dressed, he grabbed his satchel, checked the contents; crayons, notebook, cigarettes and a copy of Borges from whom he presently sought enlightenment, slung it over his shoulder and left the room.
Healy walked through the passageway that led into the main house and found his landlady in company with another woman whom he recognized as their next-door neighbour. He stopped by the daily paper that was open on the console and scanned a few stories on the international page, automatically decoding the Orwellian text so that he might gauge a scrap of outside news. He walked into the room proper and found himself assailed by the hostile gaze of the houseguest. She must have realised the monstrous appearance of her face, as at once the amorphous contours of her cruel mouth altered shape for a fleeting second to offer him an insincere greeting. She possessed the kind of ugliness that suggested a lifetime’s dedication to bitterness, envy and suspicion, though it wasn’t only her face that scared Healy. In the few times that they had met, he had always been particularly terrified by her hands, for though they were ostensibly feminine, being decorated with painted nails and adorned by jewellery, they could easily, with a greater opportunity he suspected, be hands that lovingly caressed instruments to inflict torture and pain.
With psychopathic ease, she returned to the diatribe against what sounded like every other person in their street, beginning again to wave her claw-like hands like the conductor of some hideous operatic performance, her passion lifting her to a crescendo of malignant denouncements. She spat out the last few words before her terrifying schizoid character struck out her little finger and serenely lent forward to drink the tea in front of her that Healy recognized was served in his landlady’s best china.
A chilly silence, one that has known the presence of evil, swept through the room and a few moments passed before the petrified objects of the house felt it safe again to breathe.
Appropriately, she held a significantly trivial post for the government; trivial in that it offered no plausible purpose to anyone’s lives, significant in that her position represented yet another harness upon which to yoke her people. Healy had often noticed, not just in Cuba, but in all countries that tolerated the creation of positions of power without merit, how such posts were inevitably filled by people incognizant with the notion of personal liberty. People who were wholly oblivious to the fact that the majority of life’s most satisfying acts could be carried out voluntarily by the individual, or at least in tandem with a freely chosen partner, though definitely unaided by any institution. People like the wretched woman before Healy hated the idea of others taking control of their own lives because they would cease to be needy victims, or simply that the hag and others like her, lacked the courage to do so for their own lives.
Healy congratulated himself, admitting that although he was a sworn misanthrope he didn’t hate his fellow man as much as the woman before him obviously did. Denying someone the right to take responsibility for his life was possibly the foulest deed that one man could inflict upon another and Healy thought it fitting that the woman smiling insincerely at him that morning was an agent of such cruelty. Her husband was likewise a minor official and between them they conducted with predatory skill, every mendacious trick known to bureaucrats to create for themselves as comfortable a life as was possible on this Laputan paradise, whilst simultaneously erecting as many obstacles upon the paths of everyone else so that their pitiful status might not be threatened. Both were too lazy or stupid to be true ideologues.
His landlady rose from the sofa and gestured to Healy that she wished to speak with him privately. She led him past the print copy of an English hunt scene that hung incongruously on the wall, one that Healy had often smiled upon as he passed, its figures and a life of privilege they represented being fifth-columnists in such a workers’ paradise. They entered the small courtyard at the centre of the house and were at once accosted by the stale odours from the previous night’s balmy excesses and the stirring noises of a city still in the process of waking. They took their places on a decrepit wooden bench that crumbled in the silent shade of the courtyards only other inhabitant, an old lemon tree who on warm festal evenings had treated Healy to kisses from a citric zephyr breath, which she softly exhaled from the centre of the house. On this particular morning, with matriarchal charm she administered such duties as dispensing coolness and privacy to all around her.
His landlady was named Christina, though he had reverted to calling her Senora Salas as the name Christina had been bathed in the paroxysms of lust. Healy allowed her to take her place on the bench, had sat down himself and then watched as she moved closer to him, sitting close enough that he felt the warmth of her femininity, its pulse threatening the equilibrium of this cool, still space. He joylessly drank in her evocative body fragrances and silently cursed his recalcitrant memory that reminded him immediately of one particularly loveless tryst upon this very spot. On that occasion, the night had shrouded their reticence, permitting only the moon and stars to peer upon them with voyeuristic delight as they had fumbled together with animal greed.
“Healy, I need your help”, started his landlady without any introductory platitudes, her face bearing a painful resemblance to Melpomene’s mask with an unhappy, down-turned mouth. Healy in turn began immediately to erect defences within his mind, confident that the emotional ones around his adamantine heart were secure. She had asked him for assistance once before, and he had on that occasion failed to uphold a personal belief that demanded the removal of the word “give” from his vocabulary. Silently he began to recite the credo that he had memorized with the same dedication he shown towards The Lord’s Prayer in his childhood. ‘To give is to degrade both parties. The giver being forced to acknowledge and feel pity at the inferiority of the receiving person, possibly feeling guilt at his own position, or worse, take delight in the creation of a dependent. The needy by comparison are required to renounce any dignity or sovereignty they might have had the good fortune to possess, and plead instead to the iniquitous gods of pity, justice and charity’ He might have concluded with an Amen given the sacredness he believed in such a doctrine.
Healy caught the odd word or phrase from the hackneyed mantra of his landlady; sick mother, kindness, need, hope and other terms that he was forced to rummage through the detritus of his infancy to find the meaning of. He liked her, she was affable, attractive and honest, but this was nothing to do with personalities and he was too drunk upon the catechisms of self-denial to really hear her. His faith in independence considered altruism an evil, one that necessitated people to wallow in the misery of others so that the altruistic might be able to perform some good deed. It happened too often he thought, how some people saw despair and wretchedness as an opportunity to advance themselves or their agenda. Selflessness really couldn’t exist he told himself. He worshipped instead the notions of earn, worth, exchange, and reward, words that were infinitely more precious possessions, ones that when spoken, felt as exquisite in ones mouth as a good wine, or a lover’s kiss.
Healy thought that suffering fell into several categories, the first being illness which was just one of the perils of life, and to which all would probably have to experience to some degree before one died. This category at least allowed the sufferer some opportunity to display stoicism and fortitude.
The second variety was that one experienced because of the diktats of his culture; such as comparative worth, and the inherited notion of shame; the profound disappointment when acknowledging that one hadn’t lived up to his own or society’s expectations, or the suffering that is felt from toil that offers no justification. This variety, at least thought Healy, allowed the sufferer to view his tribulations in a particular context that might offer some specious explanation.
And then there was Healy’s favourite type of suffering, the type that was invoked by the finer being, the gratuitous, self-indulgent variety that one suffered in the pursuit of intangibles; perfectionism, “the good” the exquisite pain of existentialism that wept upon images of meaning and was superior to all other types of misery. It was the choice of connoisseurs, he joked, a sacred trial that afforded the sufferer an opportunity to place as much distance as possible between his elevated self and a needy, instinctive beast. It afforded the historical possibility of smashing the pitiful alters dedicated to contentment and complacency upon which one might otherwise be tempted to die an untimely death whilst his heart still beat.
Unfortunately, Cristina’s suffering fell into none of these categories, it instead being the type of suffering inflicted by man upon another man because of his gluttonous love of power. It was sadly so common amongst the species. And whereas the other forms of suffering often visited people with a mirror in its hand, this last type wore a disguise that one might have difficulty calling out to condemn it. It was bad thinking. Man inflicting suffering on man was always in the service of bad ideas - the more universalistic being the vilest- that had left a trail of misery and destruction throughout history, ruining the lives of every individual and every culture that had had the ill luck to be exposed to them. As his landlady’s suffering fell into this category any charity would be wasted, when redress was more germane. It was a scenario played out throughout history; simple people living with the terrible consequences of their ancestors early failed attempts at overcoming the most dreadful affliction of man; the expulsion from Eden. As Dostoyevsky had mused, man had been given Paradise but had wanted freedom, and freedom had been impossible to define or implement. Freedom was antithetical to social living and the dependencies and compromises that were inherent in being amongst others. Living in groups demanded rules, customs and laws that were always antagonistic to the duty of every individual to live according to his inner commands.
It was from this womb that all manner of ghastly suffering crawled forth.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t help you,” said Healy, holding the woman’s despair fully within his gaze, hoping that she would not recognise the degree of anger he felt towards her that she had obliged him to feel pity for her.
“But Healy, I need your help, I have no one else to ask” she implored, her beautiful round eyes, ones he had often seen so full of happiness, now articulated her distress so loquaciously. It was the same despairing look worn upon the millions of faces through millennium of need and injustice.
Healy felt himself swallow but held her gaze, feeling as he did so her hands finding his. He remembered how her hands had once caressed him as a lover, as an equal, and today how they touched him cloyingly as a supplicant.
“I’m sorry, I can’t help you,” he repeated mechanically, telling himself that he must remain true to his ideals, that he was not responsible for the consequences of the bad thinking that had condemned her, this island, the majority of mankind to having to accept the hand-outs of strangers rather than feel the euphoria of self-sufficiency. He told himself that she would thank him for his obduracy on the day she was strong enough to blame the proper people and seek redress rather than alms.
She pulled her hands away and tossed her head upwards, her face, which a moment before had spoken of vulnerability and despair, now displayed a visage of angry pride. She knew that “can’t” meant “won’t” and only etiquette barred her from displaying the hostility her eyes and angry lips hinted at. Instead, she smiled, wished him a good day as she began to stand up, signalling an end to their meeting. Healy looked down at the ground, cursing the person who had first uttered the terrible word hope, but denied those who embraced it the tools to achieve what they hoped for.
He rose to his feet in time to catch the terrible look of condemnation that she pronounced upon him before turning away and heading for the house.
Healy left the courtyard and passed through the front room as quickly as possible, hoping to avoid any further hostile stares from the neighbour. He arrived unmolested at the entrance and pulled at the front door before setting off in the direction of the Plaza de la Catedral. It was evidently still early as the last vestiges of sleep were still exiting the houses, though the street already wore an air of purposefulness as its meagre occupants threaded their way amongst each other, busily pursuing the secret trails that would lead to their own closely guarded ends. Healy noticed a wizened old lady who lived a few doors away hailing a neighbour whom he also recognized and felt the vaguest resentment towards the two of them as they ate heartily upon each other’s salutations and gestures of affection, whilst he went unnourished of their cordiality.
He spotted the local drunk, as usual lying comatose in the doorway of the dilapidated house at the corner of the street, brazenly parading his misery to the neighbourhood and forcing people to look away so that they might not have to feel shame. Shame for themselves that they might have to feel contempt for him and be obliged to pass such a terrible judgment upon another human being, containing not an ounce of respect for him. Healy by contrast, compelled his eyes to feast upon the degradation of the man, taunting them as to whether they had had their fill. Healy admired the authenticity of the vagrant, whose response to the incomprehension of life was the oblivion through alcohol, a response, not qualitatively that different from those who succumbed to the oblivion of religion or the nihilism of possession. It was at least his own response.
As he turned into Obispo, his attention was caught by a forthcoming spectacle commemorating The Passion. The poster in the bookshop promised a trip along a Via Crucis, Christ’s condemnation, the bearing of His cross, His falls, His death and Deposition. Healy was familiar with the story and its richly pictured symbolism. It was at once a story of hope and a story of utter futility, allowing any man to interpret the story in the manner in which he viewed his own life. Christ had promised a better place at a moment sometime in the future; it merely required faith to enter. Man on the other hand, despite Christ’s life amongst man, had shown he was incapable of betterment. Man still killed, still lied, still stole and deceived and would never be worthy of a place in Paradise all the time he build earthly kingdoms which allowed just one man to suffer. If one man failed then all men failed, it was man’s collective fate.
Healy left the main street and passed through a passage with a mural painted on the wall. It showed the revolutionary Trinity of Castro, Guevara and Marti, though executed without the finesse of a Durer lamented Healy. He entered the piazza, and though it was probably the most touristic spot of the town, Healy still enjoyed his mornings there; the architecture was exquisite, lit proudly by an alacritous morning sun, while bougainvillea lounged languorously against the stonework and the buildings spoke haughtily of their past importance. The coffee and the ubiquitous quintet of musicians -who might have envied the immortality of their surroundings- were both passable.
Havana wore its beauty, as any elegant woman of advancing years. Defined and therefore a captive of its charm and style, the aging woman would shed silent tears at the arrival of every new wrinkle, whilst the town quietly mourned each drop of paint that fell wearily from its façades. Both suffered the burden of melancholia at the perceived neglect they endured, at least when compared to their heydays when they were so perfectly presentable. And both were understandably fearful of the day when their admirers might forget them, or pass away and a new generation might offer nobody to love them.
Healy dropped into a nearby chair at a table, one that afforded the best views as to the genius of man, whilst minimizing his exposure to the ugliness that the same species was capable of displaying amongst itself.
A group of foreigners were occupying his favoured seats and occupying even more of the piazza with their loudness. Healy wondered what had happened to reverence, why some people were unable to be touched by the magnitude of their surroundings and instead insist upon celebrating the inanity of their own inconsequential moment. It was probably democracy that was to blame he concluded. It had elevated the importance of each person to such giddy heights, promising each individual his right to matter, be heard and more importantly, to be seen. Loud ostentatious behaviour was really a demand that the erstwhile invisible should be seen. Loud voice, look, look, I’m hear. Garish clothing, I’m hear. Exaggerated, extrovert actions, I’m hear. A demand that the person be noticed. This was the leitmotif of democracy –that everyone matters- and it was tolerated, even encouraged so that nobody would have to suffer the ignominy of obscurity.
That was the fundamental flaw of democracy, that it transgressed the sacred rule of Earning. Earning wasn’t just about money, it was earning the right to be seen and judged, of doing something remarkable that another might voluntarily take notice of you.
A waiter appeared at Healy’s table and greeted him with a warmth that Healy, until then, had been unfamiliar with all that day. Healy thought his name was Jose, but could not be sure and felt an emotion that might have been remorse point an accusatory finger at him. Healy gave an expansive smile as a measure of apology to the waiter who had shown him nothing but politeness and cordiality over the previous months and whom Healy had repaid with casual neglect by not even remembering his name.
The waiter handed Healy a tattered menu listing plates that Healy would have been ashamed to feed to his dogs a few years earlier. Healy read the menu, a pointless exercise as he had done so a million times before and it had never changed. The waiter stood waiting for instructions. Healy looked at the menu quizzically, unsure what meal was appropriate for the time of day before concluding that it didn’t matter as the entire menu was available at any time and it was anyways consistently bad whatever he chose. That said, on that particular morning the plates inedibility was not even a consideration as he was famished, provoking thoughts of the previous evening with Maria, where much to her chagrin, they had dined on cigarettes and vodka. He remembered vaguely that he had woken that morning, not beside his girlfriend, but with hunger as his bed-fellow and the gnawing pains now studied the menu with greater enthusiasm than Healy the person could muster. Eventually, and with splendid indifference, he ordered the grilled chicken with rice on the assumption that it gave the cooks the least opportunity for vandalism.
The waiter scribbled the order and left Healy pondering why apathy should be an option in life. Existence was difficult, even incomprehensible, so surely one could momentarily escape from the misery and boredom of life by way of a passionate commitment to something. Anything? For example, thought Healy, the cooks in this restaurant might find a crumb of meaning in labour well performed. It would transform their lives. If life is full of drudgery, incomprehension and frustration, then surely work should be embraced as a temporary escapism. Healy remembered Camus’ Sisyphus and how he thought that at the moments when Sisyphus had to return each time to the bottom of the hill to retrieve the boulder that was his punishment, it was at these moments that he would have had a sense of clarity, a sense of excitement at the onset of an endeavour. It was the moment when he might be happy.
Work. Healy tenderly fingered the word and realized how much he missed it. He had enjoyed the period since arriving on the island, the luxury it afforded him of being able to read, to reflect, to chart a different course in life, but he had often felt a pang of nostalgia for the stimulation that one could only find in industry. Work as an ideal allowed each man to show off the skills they had accumulated through their own effort, it afforded each man the opportunity to attain satisfaction from their labours. It hinted of Circean reward and modest self-satisfaction. Healy often romanticized about the past, imagining simple artisanal people feeling a degree of satisfaction as they stitched the final thread on a shoe they had made, or making wines and spirits like alchemists, doing anything where the individual played an intrinsic part of a products formation. Machinery and industrialization had deprived him of such pleasure, driving him to further alienation.
Healy shrugged and pursed his lips as though in company and some sort of superfluous gesture was necessary. Work was sadly one more wonderful theory that had been ruined by witless implementation. The West drove every idea to its logical, sterile conclusion and work and industry were one more such example, where enterprise had become a Moloch figure. One that simply created the conditions for misery and angst by fuelling the necessity to work harder and longer so that you could vaingloriously compare your position with that of your neighbours. It was, like much of life, a conundrum and Healy promised himself that he would address this need as soon as possible, though only on the condition that work would never again be the mere handmaiden to status, consumption or necessity as it had often been in the West. He would do it simply because it felt good to be productive.
His food arrived with enough haste to make Healy suspect that it merely been rehashed rather than be the product of the frenetic travails of a skilled artisan. It was nevertheless sustenance, and it was this brutish instinct of need, rather than some elevated, abstraction of delectations being eaten as a pleasure, of fleeting flavours dancing across his tongue, of Healy being a bon vivant, that forced him to attack the food with immodest gusto.
And there was the rub as far as Healy was concerned, that the mature, developed world, where the free-market was worshiped and assumed to be a paragon of quality and creativity, a system that effortlessly produced the best and most applauded products and merchandising, could be the author of such malaise. For as Healy sat and ate his grisly meal, he knew it was preferable to the choreographed and perfectly executed meals he would receive in the West. Where all services and entertainments had been murdered by the very parents who had given birth to them, as spiralling costs, the monopoly of capital and fear of failure had encouraged chilling levels of efficacy and predictability that asphyxiated the space in which one used to feel the exhilaration of risk and discovery. Sophistication and beautification did not always sit harmoniously with authenticity. Everything in the West was beautifully packaged and promoted and nothing was left to chance, but everyone had forgotten that chance and spontaneity had lent so many colours to life. The landscapes of the high street were becoming more and more identical; formulas reigned and spouted their mechanical, robotic mantras. In this atrophic environment, one’s life experience narrowed as new was same, and jadedness the logical response to life.
Healy nodded to himself in agreement as he concluded that making such a discovery had been one of his most powerful incentives to live in the chaotic, pre-formulaic world. A place where things were still conducted badly by people who hadn’t been recruited and brainwashed by corporations into serving a system that was ambivalent to them. The muddled, un-choreographed world still had integrity, was still alive to the dialectical ballet of clashing themes and possibilities. Good and Bad sat side-by-side and were often interchangeable, a masked and unconscious who-was-who waiting to be assigned to things. Real ideas, and the emotions and ramifications they might provoke, were waiting impatiently to be implemented. It was all so stimulating. Healy felt a tingle of excitement as he knew that in a place like Havana superstitions could still command a mirthless hearing, passions might be admired, and where ideas and ideology still had an impact on people’s lives. Good and Evil were real concepts rather than the pantomime figures they had become in the West. He laughed to himself as he thought about a country that allowed this diabolical chicken to be sold, but knew that only here he might be privileged to glimpse some of the genuineness of man, rather than a well-rehearsed but soulless adaptation that the post-historical West pursued.
Healy took out his Borges and flicked through until he found his page, balancing a teaspoon on the paper to keep it open.
―I shan't be happy anymore. Maybe it doesn't matter. There are so many other things in the world. Any instant is more profound and diverse than the sea. Life is short and even if the hours are so long,
Healy’s mind wandered as he pushed the remaining rice grains around his plate, somewhat disinclined to consume the last awful mouthful of conspicuously burnt rice. Instead he condemned the present moment as being unworthy of his attention and urged his imagination to take its leave, depart the piazza as though it was nothing more than an empty and abandoned theatre set upon which the actors had stopped performing.
Everything around him lost its tangibility and dimension as his dreamy thoughts escaped to the verdant spaces of his youth, across fields and running apace with the rampaging evening wind, shot like an arrow from a blustery bow. Past the oaks that stood erect like sentries, silently guarding a furtive kingdom unpolluted by the burdens and expectations that had broken his will in later life. As often as possible Healy needed to escape the torment that was his incomprehension and was grateful to his memory that it so frequently indulged him. Only in the past did he know all the stories by heart, where adventure’s beginnings found their ends. He dreamed some more. Exhausted, his ethereal being finally collapsed upon his favourite hilltop, gasping in the moistened air that had neglected to dry itself from that afternoon’s downfall. Prostrating himself beneath a giant oak that anointed him with a handful of the million raindrops it preciously clung to, souvenirs upon its weighted limbs that were but a momentary twinkle upon the eternal memory of the countryside.
With great ceremony, as had always been his way, he had brought out into the pastures his most treasured thoughts, placing them earnestly at the feet of the great tree and beneath the star-laden skies to humbly ask the meaning of his laughter, tears and dreams. Nature replied in a vocabulary that spoke through the creaking of branches, through the nightly breezes that ran airy warm fingers through his short brown hair, by a feral moonshine that lit the excited features upon his youthful face.
But that was his infancy, when the simplicity of living made every day an adventure and feelings such as frustration and disillusionment had yet to collide with his curious, yet overly sensitive character.
Healy felt a light caress upon his shoulder followed by soft, moist lips upon his neck. He turned around and found his sometime girlfriend, Maria, at his side. Her arrival anywhere was always a spectacle, as everything about her, her graceful movement to perform even the most mundane task, her expressive chestnut eyes that spoke as eloquently as any gifted orator, or her eternally black Latino hair that danced around her bronzed face, provoked a festival amongst the senses of any looker-on. She had evidently forgotten, or forgiven the events of the previous evening.
”I thought I’d find you here, my darling,” she purred in her effortless tone as Healy instinctively battled the warm feeling her magnanimity kindled within him.
She opened a satchel that was hung around her slender shoulders and pulled out her sketchbook, throwing it down before him.
”I drew these this morning after we argued and I left the house,” she said matter-of-factly, oblivious to any awkwardness that her prodding the wound of the previous evening might arouse.
Forgiveness was a virtue that Healy practiced with typically male sluggishness, as the imagery of the night before replayed itself within his mind and he wondered whether they had had a suitable conclusion of hostilities. She had worn the red polka dress that he had bought her a month earlier and her hair had been tied back, allowing her expressive, emotive mouth an even greater stage from which to vent her iridescent temper. She had ridiculed his theme-less life in Havana, whilst he had dealt an ignoble blow by reminding her of her previous incarnation as a prostitute before they had met. It was a raw wound from which anyone could peer directly into the depth of her soul and was the frequent cause of the dark melancholy that pulled its sombre cloak around her otherwise exuberant spirit.
Healy gave the drawing a perfunctory glance, wishing more than ever to withhold applause as he considered the previous night’s fight as unconcluded as the taunts of aimlessness she had hurled at him had left a few still throbbing wounds. Gradually though, his appreciation of beauty pacified the side of him that demanded vengeance and he was able to enjoy the drawing as an honest admirer rather than as an aggrieved combatant. Her portraiture was unrecognizable from the earliest efforts that Healy had seen where she drew in an idealized form, redolent of the propaganda posters that would have thundered lies at her youthful mind. Her subjects now were people who celebrated life; street musicians whose mirthful salsa tunes won momentary victories against the drudgery that ate greedily upon the unrequited hopes of a people. She painted children whose faces spoke of naiveté and childish joy rather than as tools of deceitful adults. She had become a very enjoyable artist thought Healy magnanimously.
Love and admire. Healy had never been able to successfully disentangle the two concepts. He fingered the other sketches in the pile. He found the half-finished drawing of the young dancer she had etched at the weekend. He instinctively tut-ted, as he remembered it had been a Sunday and had been unable to stop calling it by such an artificial name. There had been a dance competition on the Plaza Vieoje and he remembered how they had sat under one of the arched walkways that lined the square. She had drawn the competitors as he had read Spinoza, his head resting on her luxuriant svelte thighs, while they had drank an Argentinean Malbec whose impenetrable purple hue matched the hair band of the winning dancer.
They had managed to argue that day as well. He had been reading Spinoza that morning and had marvelled at the idea of replacing a negative emotion with a positive one. When he had felt love for Maria it had seemed so easy. Whenever he felt like hating, cursing or desirous to break something, he would instead invoke the aid of a beautiful image or phrase to vanquish the negativity. Spinoza had also promised a form of salvation was available to those who practiced such behaviour as their goodness liberated them from the toil of anger and that accumulative acts of goodness facilitated the birth of a decent person. For the sake of contrariness he had tried to rubbish the idea, explaining to his kind-hearted girlfriend that he enjoyed anger too much, that the discordance of flux had a productive quality about it, as only amongst its power and potency could mediocrity be defeated. It was against this background that Maria had committed an unforgivable crime.
How, Healy wondered, would Spinoza have reacted to being obliged to drink an obscenely expensive Malbec, one that the dollar-store had shamelessly over-charged him for, from plastic cups because his girlfriend had carelessly forgotten to take proper wine glasses from the house despite being asked to do so? It should be beyond the endurance of anyone with a modicum of respect for the efforts of the people who made the wine. It was this fact that had ignited his wrath as Maria had glibly suggested that drinking from a plastic cup was no problem, as the wine tasted the same to her when drunk from either. It was the sort of statement he hated as he had spent months trying to educate her as to the meaning of value, and that even consumerist neophytes such as her and her people, should be able at the very least, to recognize one product or action as being superior to another. Of course he later felt that such an argument was inappropriate, but what response was suitable he wondered in the face of people who didn’t attach sufficient value to things.
They had as usual exchanged all the hurtful observations that had been stockpiled in preparation for such an argument, rolling off a litany of complaints, admonishing her for her insouciant nature that not only sanctioned mediocrity but also actually encouraged it. Lamenting her inability to understand the importance of ceremony, which he thought all the more incomprehensible, her being a Catholic, as wine was a perfect example of how through the power of ritual -the swirling of the wine in a sufficiently generous glass that they might appreciate its bouquet, how glass allowed the drinker to appraise its colours and hues- could an experience be heightened. Lastly, he had berated her for her lazy usage of the word like, as though every single object, person, or concept could only be understood when it became interchangeable and placed into easily understood categories by comparing it to something familiar.
With uncharacteristic Latin patience she had allowed him to speak, tilting her head to one side with tightly pursed lips as was her manner, whilst all the time showering him with the crushing weight of her rancour. She ridiculed his pedantic insistence upon things being done with canonical exactitude, rather than having the broadness of vision to see that many of life’s experiences were contingent upon that precise moments circumstance and feeling. She asked him to explain his ravenous appetite for applause where he insisted on doing things perfectly so that people would be obliged to compliment him, and whilst she appreciated his tutelage, on that occasion for his insights on the qualities of an Argentinean Malbec, she was beginning to tire at his inability to distinguish between lover and student.
They had sat angrily for a while, her painting, him reading, both of them testament to the eternal tension of individuals attempting to live together when in possession of two conflicting thoughts. They had stolen occasional mistrustful glances at one another, possibility in the hope of a recommencement of hostilities and the chance of decisive victory until Maria, as usual, managed to dispel his anger with the skill of an exorcist, her anodyne phrases and tender kisses conquering his unhappy character in an uneven bout. The afternoon then played itself out as a pleasantly forgettable episode that demanded nothing from either of them apart from a guileless passivity as they became intoxicated on an over-priced Malbec drunk from wretched plastic goblets.
Despite the stain of offence and rudeness not entirely expunged from their company, they had laughed at the dreadful accompanying music of the dance competition. As cheap sound equipment had managed to make Western Pop sound even worse than it did in the West, while a sequence of earnest young dancers encouraged by relations shuffling vicariously and in disharmony to an alien beat, performed for them. Healy had toasted the irony and completeness of the West’s victory, as after all the blockades, sanctions and bungled assassination attempts that had left a hideous ideology in place, it was the West’s horrible popular culture, an insidious and saccharine Trojan Horse left within the gates of this paranoiac regime, that had proved victorious and to whom its people now readily worshipped.
Maria’s depiction of one little girl was masterful, she had altered the clumsy cut of her homemade dress, ignored the gaudy movements that the music had demanded of her and instead drawn her as a graceful figure, her face the study of purpose and concentration. The lines of her hands and skirt were blurred, alluding to the energy that was her performance. Healy wondered whether it was her innate generosity that made her capture the little girl in such favourable light or whether it was some vestigial idealism that taught her to see things as they might be, rather than how they actually were.
Healy collected up the drawings and his memories and looked at the wonderful Maria.
”You draw beautifully”, he said in a grave voice, nodding his head in agreement as though her talent demanded such solemnity. She laughed with her attractive round mouth and lent across to kiss him in appreciation of his approval.
As he felt her full lips upon his, he thought of the tragedy of her life, of how she had sold herself to other men during the worst times upon the island. Justifying her dishonour to Healy by saying that she had had no choice, as though choice was a privilege of the rich who alone had empowerment over their lives or the lives of those they used in their schemes. In one previous argument, she had scolded him that he had no right to pass judgment upon her, as he would never understand the awful conditions that made possible such a terrible dilemma. One of choosing between an empty stomach that pleaded for sustenance and a human dignity that begged for an end of the touch of the filthy hands that defiled her unloved body. Her misery had continued after she took a waitress job in the restaurant that her cousin was managing, a man who knew of her months of debasement and assumed it was volitional and that her salary was not a recompense for her travails, but payment for further abuse. This had ended when he had made a botched effort to reach utopian shores to the north with a group of friends and been detained and lost the dubious privilege of serving foreigners.
A few months later, on a unhappy, gusty morning, when the sun refused to shine and grey clouds hung moodily across the sky, she had served the newly arrived Healy and continued to serve him for the following ten days as he suffered their watery coffee and stale pastries while he made awkward attempts at seduction. At first, she struggled with the idea of being desired, as the covetousness she had previously known reeked of car seats, dirty rooms and out-of-the-way places shared with lecherous brutes. In her damaged reality, intimacy was correlated with the frantic night-time scrubbing in the vain attempt to cleanse herself of ignominy. Eventually she had allowed Healy to take her for a coffee, although insisted on buying her own in case he assumed, as all men did, that he had somehow bought a part of her.
He had sat listening solemnly to her stories of suffering, and together they had performed a requiem for the death of her innocence. Privately, Healy had become fascinated by his proximity to evil, and desired to know the identity of an entity that had compelled her to shed every garment of self-worth she had possessed. How something as innocuous as an idea, uttered so long ago, was able to cast so terrible and powerful a shadow upon this beautiful creature? Like a detective, he followed the trail of evidence from the crime that was her life. She lived under a government that couldn’t provide an environment in which she could feed herself, and this was because her grandparents generation had been foolish enough to believe that the dissatisfaction they felt with their lives might be solved by the platitudinous lies of the revolutionaries who said they spoke for the people, but really used their misery for their own ends. These vile revolutionaries drew their energy from the ignorance of a people who were encouraged to be that way as it was easier to control them, leading all the way back to the distorted message of a man who died on a cross who taught that worth was innate and didn’t need to be earned.
His initial horror turned to envy, as he believed that having seen depravity so closely she was more qualified than he, to recognize life’s antipodal treasures. For hadn’t his pitifully sanitized version of life, a Western one that promised the removal of pain and danger in exchange for every individuals rejection of divine irrationality, ill-prepared him to grasp the true Bacchanalian nature of beauty? Over the following weeks he had questioned her with ever-greater intrusiveness as to the emotions and images she had seen and felt during her previous life. He knew he should have felt ashamed as he persuaded her to reveal greater detail of her past but the poignancy of her emotions were so compelling. When she spoke of pain, he acknowledged it as a pain he had never been close to experiencing. It was elemental; it was one that deserved to be painted, immortalized. Though she initially felt uncomfortable reliving the nightmarish details and glimpsing once again upon the leering faces of men who had defiled her, she eventually began to feel the cathartic benefit of such a narration. She believed Healy when he reminded her that the wages of her ignominy had paid for the canvasses and paints through which she now liberated herself and which offered her salvation of sorts, an opportunity to express her own vision of life. Her face had radiated like a brilliant sun as he had described her as an alchemist who had transformed filth and degradation into something exquisite, and through her suffering, so Healy told her enough times, she had achieved an authenticity that he himself might not have had the courage to live through?
Healy had been vaguely aware that the appreciation he sometimes felt for her was an important milestone on his long journey to becoming the magnanimous, empathetic man he thought he aspired to be. He sensed a warm stir when he imagined the gratitude he felt towards her, that she brought another dimension of beauty into his life, and he suspected that it might be appreciation that was the greatest hope of humanizing him, so that he might live amongst other people? For wasn’t aestheticism, at least for the mere spectator, the softly spoken goddess that taught man to humbly appreciate the efforts of his fellows? A goddess whose gentle alluring tones led the viewer into a spiritual place where words and analysis were redundant, and where appreciation equated with generosity and empathy to view man in his most heroic colours, momentarily amnesiac that he was equally capable of baseness, cruelty and ugliness.
Healy had always felt the meditative quality of wonder, standing before anything of beauty in a daze, a feeling of awe towards its creator. It was this appreciation and humbleness towards a creator, a truly heroic character, a man who dared to stand alone, that Healy hoped to find salvation. One that consoled his pains and occasionally fed him the essential food of humility, not from fear of some other-worldly eternal damnation, but as ambrosia. It was by this route that Healy had initially admired and then eventually loved Maria, because she made things that he loved and admired, because she helped to sensitize him. That was all he could ask from a companion, though occasionally he wished this object of beauty might transmute into a piece of soft marble or paint upon a canvas, never at risk of imperfection or the disappointment that life was heir to, and certainly not to argue with.
But if he loved her and wanted their love to last it would be because he could always admire her. And to always be admired, he reasoned, they both had to experience every emotion, every adjective of speech in its most extreme and parodied form. Always driving each other on, always discovering new experiences from which to elicit a more intense response. For art and beauty to retain their authenticity, they had to be the anguished cries of Dionysian elementalism, something that transcended notions of time and fashion. The things that really moved a man would be identical to what intoxicated the first Bacchanalians; intensity of feeling. Either that or art would degenerate into vapid decoration and lowly regalement, something that trivialized and mocked the genuine hardships of life, laughing in the faces of people not fortuitously born with eyes to see it, or a sensitivity to feel it. It would be a luxury for the rich or idle, its ephemerality a pointless waste of time and resources that titillated a few as they evaded the anguish and boredom that were the true staple of existence.
Art would be the grotesque buffoonery enjoyed by the aristocrats of the ancien regime, an extravagance that ridiculed the sans culottes with their empty stomachs and shoeless feet, paupers who had been permitted only to look covetously from a distance upon the exquisite, yet forever prohibited from touching it, living it. In such a light, it was inevitable that history’s invisible people had seen vacuous beauty as the emblem of their suffering, something to be despised. Then when history afforded them their moment of revenge, their moment of wrathful lucidity, they had chosen bread and shelter and wallowed in the ensuing lawless orgy of destruction as they trampled upon the once resplendent body of vacuous beauty.
Maria was distractedly shading in an area behind one of her figures as Healy remembered how they had hesitantly explored the first moments of their love together, how the frailty of its parts, ones as self-possessed as a candle flame before a evening zephyr, had strained beneath the weight of their histories. Maria metamorphosing into an icy marble statue at the moment of their first caress, while her tears rolled uncontrollably across their lips upon their first kiss. Likewise, Healy was as ill equipped for tenderness as he had ever been, treating her with the same suspicion that he had always shown towards another person who might have had the temerity to want a part of him.
For Ananke had determined Healy to be a bleak and tragic misanthrope, dooming any person’s attempts of empathy towards him to failure. It was against this terrible fate that he had struggled all his life. He knew he was a terrible lover, knew that his efforts at love were so ham-fisted and abnormal. He would continue to try to love, because he knew it felt good and right, but he also knew in his heart that he was acting against his nature. For he had ever only enjoyed his own company, playing alone in the eternal spaces of his imagination, or creeping quietly into the secret passages of his soul, always adhering to the belief that company meant only distraction and complication. It was with such an inauspicious script that they endeavoured to make love work.
“I will draw our children when we have them,” she laughed and Healy instinctively froze at the simple utterance that had the power to shatter their fragile relationship. She wanted children and Healy couldn’t think of anything more horrendous. He knew the truth and couldn’t understand why she of all people, tormented by the awfulness of her past, should not have acknowledged the same self-evident fact; the world was a dreadful place, and any child they might conceive would rightly despise them for summoning him or her to be a part of it. He had talked her into an abortion soon after she had excitedly announced an earlier pregnancy, she eventually consenting to the termination, but only after he had dangled the prospect of a future together. She had agreed, but had cried for days, her grief communing with the shame of her whoring days and together, the twinned sorrows groped in the darkness of her unconsciousness searching an egress from their confinement, managing afterwards to never being far from the surface of her moods.
He knew that she had never forgiven him for insisting on their infanticide, and he felt that she had stayed with him only because she had appreciated the tenderness he had shown her when she was first recovering from the debasement of her previous life. After that, she had become obsessed with the idea of having children and while he secretly hoped that her womb, one that had been a scene of death before, might tire of the idea, she continued to insist that it had always been her life’s ambition. He had tried to dissuade her, pointing-out that their lives were too chaotic, that her embryonic career as an artist would suffer from the inevitable domesticity, that her country’s impending turmoil was hardly a suitable place from which to bring forth a child. But he had stood no chance against such a powerful force as maternal desire, suspecting only that a baby meant for her a chance to live vicariously through a new life unlike her own, through a child that would not know the iniquities that she had suffered, thereby cheating memory of its due.
And so inevitably the ghost that had lived within her ensured that their happiness assumed a vitreous quality and Healy despite his clumsy efforts of greater sensitivity towards her knew that it wouldn’t take much effort from her to trade the love she once declared for him for a loathing that he might deserve. Healy forced himself to smile as he looked upon her.
“I know you will” was all he could muster.
The sun stood directly overhead the city like a great, fiery Colossus, forcing shadows to cower as they shrunk to tiny forms against the sides of buildings. Healy gasped for air. The waiter came and cleared away his plate and Healy spoke a few inanities to him, fumbling clumsily with requests for coffee, food for her and the closing times of the restaurant, all the while feeling a chilliness emanating from her expressive chestnut eyes. He looked her fully in the face and saw the faintest glimpse of revulsion run furtively across her features.
Her eyes regarded him in estranged silence. “Why are you so selfish?” she said quietly, as though she knew he was expecting the question and her words were unnecessary. “You are so obsessed with your own life you don’t have the generosity to give just a part of it to me, to a person that we could make together. “
“Do we have to talk about this now” mumbled a tired Healy, knowing only that he might but temporarily postpone the inevitable conflict.
“Just what happened in your life that made you hate it so much? Don’t you have the courage to hope, to believe that tomorrow might be better than today?”
Healy wanted to tell her that frankly he didn’t believe tomorrow would be better, and that the future was full only of terrifying uncertainty. He had told her so many times that the world was unprepared for tomorrow, that their generation did not have the leaders to permit every one of their citizens to achieve a meaningful life. How could Maria wish to bring a child into a world that was running out of food and resources, one which encouraged the commoditisation of everyone and everything, a world that fostered wars upon its most vulnerable inhabitants, a world which venerated mediocrity in the guise of scale and volume? A world that cruelly offered no meaning. It was too horrible and Maria as a beautiful, conscious, sensitive creature should have recognised this and joined him in his protest by not perpetuating the misery of man by bringing forth another perplexed denizen.
“I would do anything for you,” she implored. “I have loved you throughout our tribulations, I have been your student, learned from you, allowed you to mould my thoughts and dreams, the things I say and the values I now adhere to. Why can’t you give me something back, the only thing I’ve ever asked from you is to be the father of my children?”
Healy brushed a hand through his hair as he looked off into a place away from Maria, hoping that in his absence she would stop her unreasonableness. Why couldn’t she understand they could be happy together without such complications? He contemplated lying to her, telling her that she was right and that might start a family at once, but he suspected that she already knew the truth, and would be vigilant towards any deception.
Healy sighed as he looked upon her beautiful face for what might be the last time, watching the forces of discord swirling around them; he wondered how he existed in her consciousness, how he would remain in her memory, whether the depiction was as he would have wished and whether he would achieve a degree of immortality in her thoughts. He hated himself, that even now with the loss of such a companion he could only think of himself. He would do anything to be a better person but simply didn’t know how. With all his reading, his hours and days spent within his learned books and authors he was incapable of some response that would alleviate this beautiful creatures pain. He didn’t deserve her, so by his own rationale he would have to let her leave. In his conceit, he had often pretended that he was indifferent to their relationship, but at that precise moment he knew at least one incontestable truth. It was a great loss. He wanted to touch her one more time, but couldn’t reach out, so he breathed in one last inhalation of her perfume, and ran his eyes across her face and body, as though salvaging possessions from a burning house, hurriedly collecting as many memories from her presence as he could carry. She waited for a response, but he was tired of lying, and their vocabularies lacked similar words to describe the future. He merely asked his eyes to inform hers that he was sorry.
Maria stood up, gathered her drawings and turned away. Healy felt the awful weight of her condemnation upon him.