By Blood We Live Page 3

The inexplicable thirst.

He lied in every word.

The dream.

Oh, yes. While I’d slept. As opposed to the flashbacks and fugues my head goes in for when I’m awake.

A dream?

Impossible.

Impossible.

It might not seem much to you, but I have to repeat: I don’t dream. Categorically: I do not dream.

Not since …

Not since you were very young. Not since Vali died …

Sadness swelled, suddenly—and I knew if I let myself I’d start crying. (I’d been prone to little weeps, of late. You’re a bit fragile, Fluff, Justine had said, not long ago, having discovered me in tears in front of a TV movie starring Lindsay Wagner dying of leukaemia …)

I didn’t dream.

I did not dream.

But there it was. Last night, I’d dreamed.

In the dream I was walking barefoot on an empty beach. It was twilight and the sea was black. There were a few lonely stars in the sky, as if the bulk of the constellations had been swept away. I was walking towards …

Towards what?

He lied in every word.

Someone else was there, close behind me.

That was all.

Was that all? Wasn’t there something else …?

My face tingled and my hands tightened on the Mitsubishi’s steering wheel. This had, actually, happened, no matter how much it seemed it couldn’t have. Millennia of empty sleep—now this. The last dream before this—seventeen thousand years ago (or was it sixteen? precision goes; epoch-edges blur)—had been of Vali. The night Vali died she appeared to me in a dream and said: I will come back to you. And you will come back to me. Wait for me.

Tears welled again. Stunned and symphonic with new blood I might have been, but it made the feeling of forlornness worse, and before I knew it, there I was—yes, ridiculous, ridiculous—weeping. I imagined Justine saying, as she had when Lindsay Wagner had upset me, Don’t cry, Stonk. I liked it when she said that. I liked it when she put her hand in my hair or wrapped her limbs around me like a monkey. There were so many things I liked. That was the awful thing about being alive: there were so many things one liked. The awful thing about life was that there were so many things, full stop. You’re not waiting for Vali’s return, Mahmoud had bitched to me, shortly before his suicide, you’re just addicted to life. You’re not a romantic. You’re a junkie.

I dried my tears with the heel of my hand, like a woman in a movie driving away sadly but bravely from a break-up, and forced myself to think back. With every hero from every pre-Seventies horror film I said to myself: Now just calm down. There has to be a perfectly rational explanation for all this …

Last night had been, as far as I could remember, unexceptional. Justine and I had watched The Graduate and A League of Their Own (Geena Davis’s smile is one of the things I stay alive for, I’d said. Do you think that makes me an emotional moron?) then she’d gone out to the club and I’d gone down to the vault, drunk six O positive MREs from the cooler and read Don Juan for the last two hours of darkness until sleep took me just before dawn. That was all. Nothing unusual. Nothing to explain the dream, the wake-up panic, the pounding thirst, the conviction that I knew something without knowing what it was. Nothing, in short, to explain the overwhelming feeling that either I or the world had gone completely insane.

Desert night flowed over the car. I was aware of my face, thudding, and of the Mitsubishi’s instrument panel attending to my mental wrestle with a kind of sympathetic innocence. The dream’s images tantalised: the empty beach, the sparse stars, the black water, the unknown someone walking behind me. Naturally I’d forgotten what this was like, the way a dream’s churned wake or slipstream left you groping after the dissolving fragments, what they meant, what they seemed to mean. They don’t mean shit, Oscar the analyst had said to me one night in Alexandria. Dreams are prick-teasers non pareil. They promise and promise but they never put out. Don’t waste your time on dreams. Oscar was dead, too, it must be seventy years. So many dead. I had not known death had …

And, yes, back came the tears. Accompanied, this time, by the beginning of real fear, because what, what, what the fuck was wrong with me?

I spent the rest of the journey going through the same amnesiac loop, but I was none the wiser by the time I made it—precarious, tender, horribly alive to my own confusion—home.

Nor was home an end to the madness.

Having parked the car out front I paused, arrested in spite of the unhinged nature of things by the Californian night, the scents of orange blossom and bougainvillea and the lovely odour of damp travertine where the sprinklers’ arc had rinsed the drive. My memory being what it is I got by way of association an open mass grave at Auschwitz, thrilled rats rummaging the pale limbs as if for valuables long since purloined by the master race. I stood still for a moment to let the vision fade. There’s nothing to do with these headflashes but wait them out. Which is what I would have done, had the reverie not been interrupted by a sudden human whiff, rich as a cured meats and pickles counter, that compelled me to turn and look back down the drive.

It didn’t need night sight.

He was standing between the gateposts, illuminated by the two outdoor lamps that sit atop them like twin full moons, a beggarly old man leaning on a single crutch. His bulk, I knew, came not from protein but from a dozen never-removed layers of clothing with an eco-system of their own. His face was gaunt—what there was to see of it amid the matted hair and health-hazard beard—and one of his large eyes was dramatically bloodshot. His hands were tanned and filthy. If one of my neighbours had seen him the cops were probably already on their way.

He was staring at me, smiling.

“You’re going the wrong way,” he said.

For what felt like a long time I just stood there, looking at him. Then I said: “What?”

But he swivelled on his crutch and hurried away.

Angry now (too much bafflement eventually just makes you want to hit someone), I set off down the drive after him.

But there was a delayed effect, apparently of his non sequitur, because after a few paces I stopped. I’m not sure why. A feeble but comprehensive intuition—that following him was not a good idea.

Instead, throbbing, delicate, afraid, I turned and went back to the house.

3

JUSTINE WAS STILL out. I spent a wearying time locating my cellphone, which for some reason she’d locked in the study desk drawer. The phone had been switched off. Waiting the few seconds for it to power-up exposed the raw fact of my existence, terribly, as does standing waiting for an elevator with strangers. I had the feeling of just realising I was the subject of a reality show, imagined an invisible audience of millions thinking, Poor bugger, he hasn’t got a clue … He lied in every …

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