“When society was organised along rational lines, it is surprising how many people were left behind.” That line is striking on re-reading this stories. I am not sure how well my attempts to describe Kelly’s perception of books and kettles and other early 21st century commonplace objects is. Initially when I posted serial extracts from the story I thought it was “really about” psychiatry and my own feelings about it, but as it goes on it seems to be “really about” standardisation and technocracy. Or is it “really about” the impossibility of doing without some kind of illusion (or “illusion”)? Of course, the scare quotes should be a giveaway that it isn’t “really about” anything.
Kelly awoke to light streaming through the window. Still more asleep than not, she experienced seeing the room from the doorway, seeing herself in the bed eyes half open, seeing the rumbled sheets, seeing the wooden stained bedside locker, seeing the old mirror hanging on the wall, seeing the bare window without curtains or blinds. Then she was back inside herself, and aware of how painful her head was. She lay there, unsure of whether to sleep or get up to go the toilet. Then she was seized by nausea, all over her and all inside her.
She walked out of the house. The fresh air helped. Above loomed the mass of Mount Errigal. From a distance so distinctive with its double peak, closeup it was a indeterminate bulk, dominating the landscape but curiously absent. On the other side, fields sloped down to an ancient road, more pothole than tarmacadam, weaved beside a stream sunk out of view. This was a cosy little valley, tucked away amidst the harsh landscape of the mountains. There was a satisfying smallness of scale – the houses, which would have been dwarfed by the peaks anywhere else in this area, seemed commensurate to their surroundings.
A donkey was grazing at the edge of the field, right up against the edge of the road. Kelly made her way down to it. The placid animal did not stir as she approached, and began to gently pat its head. Kelly, trained to be wary of anthropomorphism, nevertheless found herself thinking that the animal was a kind, rather long-suffering beast. It is absurd, she thought, and yet she went on thinking this.
This was her tenth day in the mountains.Or was it her eleventh? On her previous visits she had been warned that the roads were impassable, the inhabitants hostile when they were articulate, and frighteningly inarticulate when they weren’t hostile. Manus had told her that the mountain people spoke a dialect of a dialect that was itself difficult for outsiders to begin with. He had said that he couldn’t help her decipher their speech.
Dr Gallagher had been her guide. At the beginning of their session, she had asked him where he lived. He gestured out towards Termon, and that bend in the road that was known as the limit of not only iMe coverage but of what would have been called, in a less enlightened era of anthropology, civilisation. At the end of their session, after Gallagher has expressed himself in nearly five hours of stream-of-consciousness, recorded digitally by Kelly and simultaneously being stored, via iMe, in the Research Archives back in Cambridge, MA, she had asked him again.
“Over that way.” he had replied. He was visibly drained from the effort of recollection and debate, and simply grunted the words with no accompanying gesture.
“In the mountains.”
She had persuaded him to take her there. Gallagher started a battered internal combustion vehicle, and driven along a road that, while dramatically potholed by North American standards, was nothing new for Kelly. She knew that they were heading towards Creeslough, and the coastline that would lead towards the wild shores of Bloody Foreland and Gweedore. It was a dull grey day, with greyness penetrating even the greenery. The road rose and fell. Suddenly, a few miles beyond Kilmacrenan, Gallagher took a sharp left turn, at a point where Kelly would have expected him to go straight on. This was just at Termon, but before the bend in the road where iMe went down. There was, dimly discernable, a slightly road-shaped furrow in the ground they were driving on, and as Gallagher continued Kelly began to realized that this must have once been a fully tarmacadamed road.
This road was straight enough for a while, and in places the tarmac showed through. Abandoned bungalows and farmhouses were scattered around. The countryside looked like reasonably good farmland. Immediately after passing the shell of a bungalow, perfect in desolate splendid symmetry, the terrain became a good deal rockier and the road began to twist and turn. Bulky mountains loomed all around, with Errigal – familiar to Kelly only from a distance – off to the left.
The day became less grey, and a mix of bogland colours took over the visual fielld. The sky was streaked with low, long clouds. Gallagher kept looking straight on. At one point, just after a stretch of smoother track than usual, they passed a stone wall on the left, with “Glenveagh National Park” engraved.
Lakes and forests came into view. While she had not noticed the road rising, she realized that they were now at a considerable height. The bulk of Errigal grew ever closer. Then, with a sudden sense of being perched between the mountain on the right and a sheer drop to twin lakes on the left, they were at the mountain.
The road curved along the side of the mountain. Little waterfalls were everywhere, each above a glistening green clump of moss. Rocks seemed to grow out of moss and small streams. The peak looked different at this angle, no longer twin summits with a crescent path between, but a more amorphous thing, difficult to see in one vision. Ruined houses abounded on the slope leading down to the lakes to their left. Suddenly, the mountain was past, and Gallagher took the car up what seemed to be nothing but a hill. Kelly grasped the side of her seat, and again after a little adjustment – like the adjustment of the eye to darkness – she realised that this was also a road. The grass was very slightly paler then that surrounding it. Soon, they stopped at what looked like another deserted bungalow.
“It looks pretty wrecked from the outside, doesn’t it?”
“Is this another ruin?”
“…of the obsolete vernacular architectural form known as the bungalow? It certainly is.”
Gallagher prodded what seemed to be a rotting wooden door. It swung open, seeming to Kelly about to break on its hinges. They walked inside.
The bungalow itself has looked simple, a combination of straight lines. The tiny windows
Kelly felt overwhelmed by plenitude. Everywhere her gaze turned, she saw strange slivers of colour. Dark red, faded yellow, white offset by a green tint, bright blue – there was no pattern to the arrangements of colours. On most of the slivers, she saw shapes that she realised after initial confusion were letters on their sides. These slivers of colour were the spines of written passives – books. Every possible walls space was taken up by books on shelves, and piles of books were heaped on three long tables that were running through the room. On one wall, there was clearly a cooking apparatus, and also a device she recognised as being used to boil water to prepare infusions. The room was lit from both the tiny windows and a dim light from the centre of three tall devices on each table. This gave the effect sometimes experienced in historically-set interactive passives of candlelight. The room was also quite warm, though there was no obvious source of heat. The overall sensation was of not only being surrounded by books, but of actually being part of them, at one with them. Out the tiny windows one could see grass, and a little strip of sky, but they looked the most artificial things in the scene.
Gallagher was looking at Kelly with a certain complacency.
“You’re impressed,” he said.
“I don’t know what to say.”
“So many books, or rather ‘written passives’ as they are supposed to be called now. There was never anything passive about reading, I can tell you.”
“I remember as a child, my grandmothers house was full of books. When she died, my parents had them all taken away for pulp. I was only six. I remember crying and crying and crying, and screaming when they were to be taken away.”
“Really? That mustn’t be all that long ago.”
“You’re talking normally now, have you noticed?”
“You mean incorrectly?”
“Yes, you are talking in a way that perpetuates the illusion of the self, the illusion of reliable memory, the illusion of linear time. A host of philosophical errors are manifest in your speech. It hasn’t quite conquered all, this Correct Speech. All these now selves and past selves and continuing selves.”
“No, it hasn’t. And yet, I have never forgot myself like this before.”
“It takes time. Believe me, I know. I was interested in philosophy, once. Indeed, I was once at the forefront of trying to bring Correct Speech to Donegal. Only the people who fancied themselves cultivated used it, and then they all left, pretty much. When society was organised along rational lines, it was surprising how many people got left behind.”
“You sound like a militia man.”
“What do they call themselves? Minutemen? That’s a word that’s meant many things over the years. But here, sit you down and let me make you a cup of tea.”
He gestured at a wooden chair, whose seat was covered with just a few magazines. Kelly sat and stared at the cover. They were Irish political magazines of the early twenty-first century, chronicling the petty political woes of those days before the Contraction had forced rationality on the public sphere. Arguments about motorways, about airlines, about broadband internet (some kind of ancestor of iMe and TotalWeb; Kelly could not contain her boredom when faced with earnest histories of technology) She read threw some. Then sudden an odd high pitched whistle came from the room, near the cooking apparatus. It was the water boiling. Kelly had heard much of the once overwhelmingly popularity of this infusion in Ireland. This would, however, be her first time tasting tea.
Later that day, Gallagher showed her around the bungalow; she was inducted into the rituals of everyday life such as how to work the cooker and the lamps. He showed off the central heating system, “based on what the Ancient Romans did, they did more than own slaves and be generally patriarchial, you know” and what he called the septic tank. Most of all, he showed her the books – the biographies, the novels, the volumes of poetry and of history, the disciplines discredited for perpetuating one illusion or another. He was one moment tart and cynical, another enthusiastic and boyish, another grave and wise-seeming. That first day passed in a blur, and she feel asleep on a rug in the corner of the main room, drifting off amidst the enormous towers of books.