9.04. a.m., September 2nd, USA
“Meta?” he says. “I’ve never even heard of her.” The pockets of laughter are unenthusiastic at best. At worst they speak to a deep-seated worry that, in fact, he has no right to be teaching this class.
Three days earlier he had been planning—or pretending to plan—this lecture while sitting in a streetside cafe, chomping some urban pastry and sipping espresso as though he were still at home. Opposite him, Andrew had said: “You’re Umberto Eco.” This was true, but it did not alter the fact that coffee and sugared confections were much more succulent and fulfilling than anything he could write in the margins of his notebook.
“You’re a name,” the American said, “and much like the university itself, you’re appealing because of what you represent rather than what you do.” He leaned back in his chair and feigned distraction as a handsome undergrad strolled past.
The joke is weak. He was hoping for sublimely awful. Such high standards, he tells himself. On the screen above there appears the lecture’s title, caught between a parenthesis: [untitled].
1.20 p.m., September 3rd, Scotland
To those who visited the weather-beaten outcrops high above the town of Dromanagh, it was never more than a peculiar arrangement of shapes nestled below Devil’s Point. Situated as it was in a valley deep within the Cairngorms, the town was—so far as its inhabitants were concerned—perfectly unremarkable, but to the urbanites whose travels in the more mountainous regions of the north were interrupted by the startling realisation that life did indeed continue even in such demanding conditions as these, it provided mystery and intrigue that was difficult to dispel.
Descending the slopes with a concern that marked him immediately as an intruder, Milo Finbar watched the roofs of Dromanagh become increasingly distinct, separating into squares of grey shingle and earthen stone, as he reached fifty, then one hundred feet from the trail and from his forty-person hiking tour. A small ledge appeared beneath him. The granite was unusually flat and hollowed out into a grotto to one side of the miniature plateau. He jumped several feet from the crags above onto the outcrop.
Above him the tour, each member carrying a staff and bearing absurd equipment on their back, was tracking the path cut through the Point by glacial ice. Milo retreated to the shelter of the rock as the figures above disappeared into a ravine. Below him lay Dromanagh. Outlines in pastel worked on land neatly divided into lines of plants and various crops.
Relieving his shoulders of their burden, he squatted and slid his hiking equipment—rucksack, stove and one fortieth of the tour’s camping paraphernalia—as far into the grotto as possible before turning back to examine the town and its indistinct inhabitants. One man—his gait signified his sex even from this height—was tipping a container of liquid, drowning the mossy grass with waste and water. Another figure rounded a wooden structure and Milo watched its head move in silence as it addressed the first man; the first man waved in response.
It was growing darker, the puffs of cloud overhead white and static, when Milo leaned back into his makeshift shelter and fell asleep. Below, Dromanagh burned its gaslights, precious in the winter months, until the town was suddenly extinguished.
4.47 pm, September 3rd, England
Merlin’s Keep, the sign read. I had thorns in my legs. Nettle stings nestled behind my knees. But the tangles of wildflowers and weeds had yet to fully obscure the entrance. As I looked back, I could barely make out the gravel drive below and the metallic roof of the car parked against a shock of greenery. In front of me, and almost buried among fallen plaster and shards of glass, was the large sandy portico of Merlin’s Keep.
I swung the thick wooden branch that had served as both scythe and staff on the tumble up the path. Cutting in with a crescent-shaped movement, a fan of ferns gave way to the entrance. The door must have reached ten feet, and it overhung steps which were cracked beyond a mason’s ministrations. Roots and nests of insects waited just below the surface to burst into the miniature jungle.
I needed only creak the knotted wood ten or twelve inches forwards before I could squeeze through the crack and into the mansion. A musty odour hung almost visibly in the air, and a puff of dust granules swelled out through the gap and into the sunlight.
A flashlight would have been helpful, I told myself. Shafts of light hitting the windows to my right gave some warmth to the entryway, burning more brightly in several spots as the naked sun made its way through holes in the window panes.
I stepped further into the house, peering around into the main room and placing a palm against the wall to my left. Plaster came away, leaving my hand dusted and clammy. With its vaulted ceilings and the faux Greek arches in each corner the room would once have been resplendent, opulent even; in its decay it was now little more than a relic.
A staircase spun from one wall up onto a second floor. Amid the dust and plaster, splinters and pockmarks there was little else intact in the room. I moved to the bottom of the stairs, the dust crunching statically under my feet, the wooden floorboards moving tectonically.
7.24 am, September 3rd, Scotland
A scratching, fingernails on piano strings, thought Milo, but organic. He opened one eye, squinting the other, and looked across the ledge—now parallel with his prone body—towards the drop off to the incline beneath. Scrambling upright he narrowly avoided cracking his skull into the concave interior of the hollow and crawled to the same lookout point he had used last night. Halfway between Milo and Dromanagh there was a bird—large, an eagle, he suspected—clawing at something obscured in a spring-greening bush. Its wings were in motion, slowly beating a lateral force against whatever it had clasped with its feet.
Eventually the bird prevailed and pushed the air downward, downward until it could bear aloft a white, spherical object roughly the size of a cricket ball. Milo barely waited for the eagle to disappear behind the next wave of rock before clambering and sliding down toward the plant. Before he reached it he saw, hidden behind an undulation, the better half of the eagle’s cricket ball.
Several feet in height, pockmarked and moss-covered but standing watch over Dromanagh was a marble statue of an angel. Its wings were spread almost as wide as the bird’s had been, chipped at the ends but purposeful and—so Milo, thought—somehow dauntless. But the angel had been cruelly mutilated. Severed at the neck, it stood headless, eyeless, like the victim of a highland Medusa.
Milo clambered up the rock and grass, palms scratched and bloodied before he reached hi s flat outcrop above. Gathering together his belongings, he filled the pack and tossed the empty containers from his various climbing rations together into a misshapen Russian doll before stuffing them as far back beneath the concave rock as they would go.
At the edge of his lookout he paused, gazing down into Dromanagh, now just waking from its sleep. He thought for a moment that he heard a distant music on the edge of sound, but dismissed this as nonsense before sailing over the edge onto the path towards town.
10.23 a.m., September 5th, Vatican City
The Rector turns to look back across the courtyard. The line that once graced the horizon—the dome and the rising point of the obelisk—is now broken, jagged, much like his career all but in pieces. The cracked paving stones spread between here and the cathedral—just behind the obelisk itself—are ripping up the land underneath. Seeds and leaves, brown earth and insects of every species have begun to creep into the open for the first time in decades.
Victor is clambering across the grey speckled rooftop as the Rector reaches the main entrance to the radio station. As the Italian disentangles himself from the cables at the base of the tower, the Rector waits beneath expectantly. “Any better?” he calls up the ladder. Victor descends from the roof, braces his hands and feet against the rusty metal and arches his back to jump the last few steps to the ground.
“Sorry Mr Duggan,” he says, shaking his head. “It’s so close—to the wall, you see—we can’t pick up anything.”
The tower is taller than ever, perhaps the only edifice that has grown with the tiny city-state’s decline. He and Victor stand beneath it. This is, they know, the only point from which the enormous mast is invisible, and for a time they say nothing and just stand there. Across the skyline there is a red, indelible scar. [ends]