The Life of Henry Fuckit
92 Face to face with Gudd and Sutton, Henry learns the terrible truth
Alright, so here he was. Henry Fuckit. Dilettante. Life's dabbler, drifting, wandering, following the path where it led. Examining human nature, his own and others', looking for a pattern, hoping to come to some kind of conclusion and make a statement. Like Homo sum. For thirty years he had dutifully followed this path and look where it had led him. He wasn't complaining, it had been interesting. But now that he thought he was actually on the brink of something, he felt justified in expecting the path to arrive somewhere and not just meander on over the next hill. He was ready for a climacteric experience, and nothing less than a clearly demarcated crossroads would suffice.
The moment he entered the cave a feeling of dejá vu stole up on him. The interior was uniformly clean, bare and dry. Strangely, there were no droppings or any other litter to indicate the comings and goings of seabirds. It was a deep funnel reaching some twenty or twenty-five paces into the mountain and ending, not in a cul-de-sac, but a black orifice less than three feet in diameter. The sloping roof obliged him to get down on hands and knees and crawl the final few metres. Cautiously he eased his head and shoulders into the hole. Stupid, he had neglected to bring a torch with him. What kind of speleologist went exploring without a fucking torch? He sniffed the air and peered about like a cautious dog. Nothing damp and unwholesome about this air - instead there was the faint scent, that gentle sweet-spiciness reminding him of a cool dawn in Spring, at In? No doubt about it, this was Oxyaston. And instead of encountering impenetrable darkness his eyes were accustoming themselves to a diffuse, low-intensity glow.
On pulling himself through the orifice he slid a short distance down a slope and stood up. He was in a long cavern, maybe twelve feet in height, which angled downward from left to right. The walls were uneven but their surface was smooth and polished and emitted a uniformly soft light. The orifice was now at eye-level and he could see the fogbank catching the sun. First he explored to the right, downhill, expecting to reach the end after ten or so paces. On the contrary, it extended much further than this. In fact, the whole chamber seemed to be curving to the left. He looked back and could no longer make out the orifice. No, not a cavern. This was a tunnel. He was in a lava tube, a secondary conduit which had branched away from the main vent. That was the explanation, and this light was phosphorescence. No doubt about it. Well, there was no choice for a dilettante - he would have to follow it.
After half an hour's fast walk he was convinced he was descending in an anti-clockwise spiral. The angle of decline remained constant and so did the curve to the left. The tunnel went on and on. Were the walls glowing a little more intensely? Was the temperature rising? Or maybe he was feeling warm on account of the exercise he was taking. It was good to have a proper walk after being confined for so many days. Mm. He actually needed to take a piss. But where?
No doubt about it, incrementally the quality of light was changing. There had been a recent National Geographic lying about on one of the coffee tables in the Gullets' passenger lounge, and it had featured 'the cable of the future'. Henry was now idly wondering whether this tunnel wasn't behaving in a similar fashion to a giant optical fibre. In fibre optics, from what he could remember, light was transmitted by means of total reflection within the confines of a glass tube or filament. The special quality of the wall of this volcanic conduit down which he was making his way might allow for the transmission of light and other forms of energy. Not so far-fetched.
As he emptied the contents of his bladder onto the polished, creamy white floor he felt a little ashamed of himself. It was so clean and pristine down there, and the walls were now alive with such a beautiful mother-of-pearl lustre, and along he comes, human trash that he was, and in less than an hour he was fouling and defiling the place. It was disgraceful.
To add to his feelings of contrition and embarrassment he noticed, as he zipped his fly, that his urine had begun to collect in the centre of the floor and slowly make its way downhill. It spread out and formed into an amber snake which moved with the fluid ease of mercury. He followed its unhindered leisurely progress, hoping it would infiltrate the rock over which it was passing, dwindle, and quickly dissipate. But no, it kept on, undiminished and as if with a mind of its own. It must have something to do with this surface, he thought. It was like glass and there wasn't a trace of dust either. Nothing to soak it up. Should he take off his socks and lay them in the path? Uh-uh. No ways. No, he must overtake it and hurry on ahead, hoping it would evaporate, or fall into a hole, or something.
For another five to ten minutes he strode briskly down the tunnel, shrugging off the unwelcome metaphor with which his sense of guilt had tried to burden him. This was no sewer. This was a magical passageway leading to somewhere splendid. And splendid it was. The light suddenly brightened, the walls opened out, and he was standing on a threshold, looking into an amphitheatre, a great circular cathedral at the centre of which lay a cauldron. From this cauldron there arose a mighty column of many-hued light, the auroral flame he had seen spurting forth from the volcano.
Holy shit! Holy, holy shit! Should he shield his eyes from the glory? What right did he think he had to gaze directly upon this wonder? He hadn't even prostrated himself. He looked up and followed the towering white cliffs higher and higher as they funnelled the stream of energy ever upward. The cauldron was a huge hole in the floor of the crater, and it was up from this hole that the visible manifestation of Oxyaston rose. From this vent the life force of the planet was flowing before his eyes.
As he drew near it occurred to him that there was very little audible evidence of what was taking place. He would have imagined there to be a deafening roar as if from a gigantic bunsen burner. But there was nothing like that; only a faint hum and a barely perceptible stirring of the air. Cautiously he moved close to the lip of the vent and extended his hand toward the column of flowing energy. There was no heat, no force, no tangible resistance. Only a faint tingling in his fingers. And something else. A general feeling of calmness and resignation came over him and he lowered his hand and stepped back. Withdrawing to where the floor of the crater was benched to meet the vertical wall he sat down on the smooth rock. It felt faintly warm to the touch, something close to body temperature. And then, to his horror, a movement caught his eye. His stream of piss had slithered in and was heading for centre stage. He jumped up, but what could he do? Even as he moved forward it reached the lip and slid over, a tiny addition to the river of colourful light.
He resumed his seat. Oh well, at least it was disposed of. Now a part of him was mingling with the planet's life force. Microscopic bits of him were being disseminated. Apart from water and urea and sundry impurities there had to be any number of his cells suspended in that bladderful, and a good few sperm must have been washed through, no doubt. When had he last wanked? Must be weeks. Anyway, all forty-six of his chromosomes were now whizzing off to travel the network of Oxyastonishing pathways. Strands of his DNA were already being ripped apart and eventually there would be Henry Fuckit genes distributed evenly throughout the world. It was quite a satisfying thought.
He relaxed and soon fell into one of his favourite mental states, the glassy-eyed reverie. The place certainly had a soothing effect on him, and his situation troubled him not in the slightest. He didn't know what he was going to do next and it didn't concern him. Yet he should collect his thoughts and concentrate on the task in hand. Which was? Christ, had he forgotten the purpose of his mission? He was supposed to get Mother Superior down here, set her up, twiddle the knobs, and try to contact Harry Bergson. Oxyastonishing telepathic communication! Whatever next! And yet, he had to admit, Bergson had been right about the existence of the Vital Isle.
'Harry, you're a poes!'
He said it aloud, in an absent-minded way, with an affectionate undertone. It was an idle statement, yet it worked like rubbing Aladdin's lamp. In the shimmering column a shadow formed and made itself known to his visual sense. Forced to focus he sat up, startled, and witnessed the materialisation of none other than the Director of Naval Stores himself.
'Harry, for fuck sake, this is impossible!'
'Of course its impossible. Henry, you're a bloody fool. Don't you know what's going on? You now have access. All kinds of things are available to you. I'm relying on you to make proper use of this opportunity. You'll never get it again. Now let me go. Get on with it.'
Let him go? What the hell was the man blathering about?
'Go? Alright, if that's how you feel. See if I give a damn. Go on then, piss off back to the Dockyard. Go drink tea and stick pins in that stupid map of yours.'
Bergson turned on his heel and strode off whence he had come, into the stream of energy where his form evaporated in the space of a few seconds. Again Henry was alone.
A bloody fool, was he? Huh! Access? All kinds of things available? Mmm. A seed of an idea was beginning to grow. This was all a bit too dream-like. Was he in some kind of trance? Hell, he might even be dead! He could have drowned when that miserable arsehole Cunt threw him overboard. Was this Limbus Fatuorum, the place where deceased idiots went because they could be consigned to neither heaven nor hell? No, he was being entirely too flippant. He was still in the land of the living, of that he was convinced, but he was no longer able to distinguish a line between reality and illusion. Was this adventure taking place in the physical world bounded by time and space, or was this happening in his imagination like a metaphor conjured up out of the ethereal sphere of ideas? Was his whole life a metaphor? He looked at the flow of beautiful light rising out of the floor and felt himself close to an answer.
Thinking back on his life he was surprised to see how dense it was with symbolism, and how it was strewn with events of metaphorical significance. Strange, because he had always had a problem with meaning and structure. Before, he had never been able to see a pattern, and had considered himself too honest to impose beginnings, middles and ends. Existence had been a pointless confusion of haphazard, undirected incidents. Sitting here inside this volcano, though, the perspective was radically changed. Everything that had ever happened to him, no matter how trifling it had appeared at the time, was part of a scheme. Every occurrence had been a necessary step leading up to this point. Each experience had been a formative one, despite its banality, absurdity or paltriness, and was all the more precious, like the individual notes in a sublime piece of musical composition, and utterly indispensable.
Was this what Bergson was referring to when he spoke of 'having access'? Access to meaning? Being in such close proximity to the Oxyastonishing vital force empowered him with insight and understanding. If he were to formulate the appropriate questions all would be revealed. Is that how it worked? It was expected of him to 'make proper use of this opportunity.' He was supposed to ask important questions and return to the Dockyard with information of a revelatory nature. Information which would uplift, enlighten, even save, the entire human race. Save them from themselves. If this was what Bergson had in mind, what he had been working towards all these years, then it had to make him the most hubristically ambitious jerk on the planet. He was seeking the type of information which would enable humanity to forego the pain of hundreds, maybe thousands of years of evolution. Bergson wanted to jump the queue. The presumption of the man! Now he knew what the bastard was up to. He had dispatched Henry to interview the gods and solicit a favour. The gods? God Almighty, more like it.
Impatient son of a bitch. But, to his amazement, there were in fact two figures, not one, and neither was Bergson. They emerged and paused, looked about, strode over to Henry. Two men in expensive suits, they looked like businessmen or politicians. Both middle-aged, one Caucasian with a full head of silver hair, cut and styled, immaculately swept back off a low forehead. The black man was taller and heavier with a shining bald pate.
'Fuckit?' The white man. 'You're Henry Fuckit. Bergson said you'd be here, but you've left it very late.' Henry had scrambled to his feet. 'We'll be leaving shortly and there's a lot to organise, so let's dispense with the niceties and cut to the chase. Where's that bloody table?'
Two liveried minions appeared, one bearing a round table, the like of which might be found on the pavement of a Paris café. The other man carried a stack of three chairs.
'Sit down, sit down. Garcon, coffees and a bottle of absinth. No, make it cognac.'
They sat down and the negro offered Henry a cigar, an extravagantly superior Dutch cigar from a cedarwood box stamped De Heeren van Ruysdael.
'You know who we are?' The white guy had an abrupt, almost impatient manner. He spoke without an accent and could have been British or Canadian or Australian. Even South African. The black man sounded like an American, but then again, he could also have been from Liberia or Sierra Leone. Hard to tell.
'Well … er …' Henry didn't have the faintest clue.
'Well, we're not travelling salesmen! Gudd and Sutton. I'll be Gudd and he can be Sutton so as not to confuse you with a reversal of stereotypes. One and the same, though. Two sides of one coin.'
'From the firm of Gudd Sutton & Co. Ha, ha, ha!' Sutton was a rich baritone and he was liberal in the way he poured the brandy. 'Down the hatch! Gesund!'
Gudd & Sutton? Henry was confused. He thought Gudd & Sutton were his own private creations. He had dreamt them up years ago at Aus whilst on his first expedition.
'Right, so here we are, ready to answer your questions. Fire away.'
'Well … Um … Well, I suppose I'd like to know what's going on here. I mean, is this all a dream, or is it some kind of reality. Shit, this can't really be happening to ….'
'Yes and no to both questions. Look, we're not going to get very far with that kind of thing.' He took a sip of his black coffee, grimaced, and added a sugar.
'Why don't you start by asking about matters which would be of greatest interest to Harry Bergson?' Sutton was trying to be helpful. He even used his clipper on Henry's cigar for him.
'Okay. This is excellent coffee, you know. And the brandy …. Napoleon, is it? Certainly don't need any Coke in it. Alright. Harry's obsessed with Oxyaston. What is Oxyaston?
'It's a creative force running through the planet, capable of linking different life forms together in a mutually beneficial relationship. It's also the energy within an individual that sustains the imaginative spirit and allows for mental and physical development as part of a progressive process. We manufacture it here on the Vital Isle.'
They eyed him expectantly, waiting for him to digest what Gudd had said.
'Harry thinks Oxyaston needs reviving. He actually fears it might be dying out. It's his intention to promote awareness of it, get people tuned in to it again, start using the old conduits and ducts for telepathic communication and all that crap. What do you think? Is it possible?'
Gudd sat back with a sneer on his face, gestured with his open hand as if to say, you tell the man, Sutt, and sipped his cognac.
''Fraid not, son. We just shut down the factory, so to speak. Ain't no profit in it. Here, let me light that for you, Mijnheer.'
He flicked his flashy platinum lighter and Henry sucked on the long brown cylinder. He blew a grey cloud, drew again, and waved the blue-fuming tip under his nose. Ah, that's the stuff! The smell of men toiling in the tobacco plantations of Sumatra, Java, Cuba and Brazil. He sniffed the aroma of ruthless exploitation and uncaring cruelty. What a smooth and subtle blend! This hand-picked mélange smouldered with such cool restraint that its smoke soothed his throat and whispered in his nostrils. This was the flavour reserved for the rich and the powerful, for those accustomed to indulging their excessive desires. This was the taste normally only savoured by men of the highest station, those leaders capable of indifference to the sufferings of the subjugated, men schooled by education and temperament to demand the finest things in life. Ahh.
'Enjoy, enjoy.' Sutton lit his own cigar and blew up a fog until a good half inch of leaf had been converted into perfectly stable ash. Then he too sighed with satisfaction. Gudd, in the meantime, had been tapping his foot and drumming on the table with rising irritation. 'No, Henry,' the man of colour continued, 'No more Oxyaston for you lousy humans. We've had enough, we're departing the planet. Relocating. Leaving you to your own devices.'
'Departing the planet? Shit, that sounds serious. Bergson's not going to like this one little bit. His grand scheme, his life's work - doomed to failure. I personally couldn't give a fuck though.' Henry set the brandy swirling in his balloon glass, breathed the vapour, sipped appreciatively. 'Is there a reason for this decision? You sound a bit peeved.'
'Damn right there's a reason!' There was bitterness in Gudd's voice. 'Mankind has proved to be a crushing disappointment. A horrible let-down. We used to be so confidently optimistic about his development, so sure of the direction he was moving in. But somewhere along the way the signs began to show: the creature was too flawed, too inadequate, too lacking in capacity to achieve the stage of development we had thought was possible.'
'But how can you say that?' Henry was mildly indignant. 'Surely its too soon to tell? We're developing all the time, and the pace of change is increasing. Think of what has been achieved in just the past hundred years. Think of the progress that's been made in science and our understanding and control of the world around us.'
'You're a cocksucking hypocrite, Henry.' Sutton was waving a finger at him. 'You don't really believe that, do you? Progress my ass! Yes, there was progress being made for a few thousand years. As the boss says, it was promising. We watched, we were excited, we even tried to help with Oxyaston. But you know as well as we do there's been no progress for the past several hundred years. Quite the reverse.'
'Just look what's become of your great ideologies. Consider what you've done to them, and what you've done with them.'
'What ideologies are those, Mr Gudd?'
'The religions, man, the religions. Even Marxism. They all have the same fundamental structure: a background theory describing the universe; a basic definition of human nature; a diagnosis of human shortcomings; and a proposed course of action to correct faults and move forward. They were all adequate but none of them have worked. And you know why?'
'No, why? Obviously we can't blame Mr Sutton here.'
'Well, if you did, you might have a better chance of making the ideology work. No, the main reason is you've concentrated your minds almost exclusively on just one of the elements of the structure - describing the world about you - and neglected the other three aspects.'
'He sure ain't talking shit, Henry. And the reason you slimeballs concentrated all your energy on describing your world was so you could manipulate it. And what you couldn't describe and manipulate you ignored or destroyed.'
'Can't really say I disagree with your analysis.' Henry was sobering up fast. The intoxicating novelty of his situation shouldn't mask the seriousness of what was being revealed. 'If I understand you correctly, what you're saying is that you were mistaken in your assessment of human potential. And that you've decided to abandon a lost cause and to turn your back on what has become embarrassing and repugnant, and to walk away from the relationship. Not very flattering.' Neither of them responded, so he went on. 'I don't blame you. I've been acquainting myself with the condition for some thirty years now, and I can confirm that there are no grounds for optimism. I constantly disgust myself and find my fellows disgusting. You know what I find particularly loathsome? The abject way in which …'
'Christ damn it, man!' Gudd was exasperated. 'We're not here to provide you with an audience for your half-baked, feeble-minded, incoherent theorizing about …'
'Then what the fuck are you here for? Hey?'
Gudd started to rise to his feet but Sutton waved him back.
'Now listen good, sonny-boy.' He didn't look or sound so affable anymore. 'We've come to a decision about you stinking little humans and nothing can affect our resolve. You better get that straight. We're sick of the spectacle, we can't stomach your conceited posturing as you allow your intellects to ossify, as your imagination withers and wastes from lack of use, as you become increasingly materialistic and acquisitive, as you jettison your best ideas and institutions, as you treat each other with more and more inhumanity, and as you recklessly fuck up the planet. We don't want to watch this any more. Got it? We're shutting down and going.'
'But … but … Without Oxyaston, as I understand it, there's no way we'd have the creative strength to come right, to save ourselves. You know what it'd take to get ourselves out of this pit we're in? Jesus, man! It was Bergson's idea to start getting people onto the same wavelength, tuning in to …'
'Too bad. We're not hanging around to witness you drowning in your own effluent.'
Gudd got to his feet and Sutton followed suit, knocking back the last of his cognac. The white man consulted his Rolex.
'Half an hour? We'll give you half an hour to get off the island before we pull the plug.'
And Henry was standing there alone. The two men, the table and chairs, bottle, glasses, coffee cups - gone. And the great column of Oxyastonishing energy, gone too. All that was left was a huge saucer of foamy dust which settled and crusted over as he watched. Then came the first tremor.
He felt movement beneath his feet, he heard a dull rumbling sound and, looking up, saw the encircling walls of the volcano's vent shivering minutely. Shit, man! Debris was starting to fall. He scampered for cover, looked back to catch a glimpse of the saucer's surface crazing and cracking, then began the long uphill run.
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