Portrait of
The Cyclops

Disgust, now, that is something I know about. Let me say a word or two about disgust. Here I sit, naked under my prison garb, wads of pallid flesh trussed and bagged like badly packaged meat. I get up and walk around on my hind legs, a belted animal, shedding an invisible snow of scurf everywhere I move. It's live on me, they lap my sweat, stick their snouts into my pores and gobble up the glop they find there. Then the split skin, the cracks, the crevices. Hair: just think of hair. And this is only the surface. Imagine what is going on inside, the purple pump shuddering and squelching, lungs fluttering, and, down in the dark, the glue factory at its ceaseless work. Animate carrion, slick with gleet, not ripe enough yet for the worms. Ach, I should ---

Calm, Frederick, Calm.

My wife came to see me today. This is not unusual, she comes every week. As a remand prisoner, I have the right to unrestricted visiting, but I have not told her this, and if she knows it she has said nothing. We prefer it this way. Even at its most eventful, the Thursday visiting hour is a bizarre, not to say uncanny ritual. It is conducted in a large, square, lofty room with small windows set high up under the ceiling. A partition of plywood and glass, an ugly contraption, separates us from our loved ones, with whom we converse as best we can by way of a disinfected plastic grille.

This state of virtual quarantine is a recent imposition. It is meant to keep out drugs, we're told, but I think it is really a way of keeping in those interesting viruses which lately we have begun to incubate in here. The room has a touch of the aquarium about it, with that wall of greenish glass, and the tall light drifting down from above, and the voices that come to us out of the plastic lattices as if bubbled through water. We inmates sit with shoulders hunched, leaning grimly on folded arms, wan, bloated, vague-eyed, like unhoused crustaceans crouching at the bottom of a tank.

Our visitors exist in a different element from ours, they seem more sharply defined than we, more intensely present in their world. Sometimes we catch a look in their eyes, a mixture of curiosity and compassion, and faint repugnance too, which strikes us to the heart. They must feel the force of our longing, must hear it, almost, the mermen's song, a high needle-note of pure woe buzzing on the glass that separates us from them.

Their concern for our plight is not a comfort, but distresses, rather. This is the tenderest time of our week, we desire tranquillity, decorum, muted voices. We are constantly on edge, worried that someone's wife or girlfriend out there will make a scene, jump up and shout, pound her fists on the partition, weep. When such a thing does happen it is awful, just awful, and afterwards the one that it happened to is an object of sympathy and awe amongst us, as if he had suffered a bereavement.

No fear of Daphne making a scene. She maintains an admirable poise at all times. Today, for instance, when she told me about the child, she spoke quietly, looking away from me with her usual air of faint abstration. I confess I was annoyed at her, I couldn't hide it. She should have told me she was having him tested, instead of just presenting me with the diagnosis out of the blue like this. She gave me a quizzical look, tilting her head to one side and almost smiling. Are you surprised? she said. I turned my face away crossly and did not answer.

Of course I was not surprised. I knew there was something wrong with him, I already knew --- I told her so, long before she was ready to admit it. From the start, there was the way he moved, warily, quaking, on his scrawny little legs, as if trying not to drop some large, unmanageable thing that had been dumped into his arms, looking up at us in bewilderment and supplication, like a creature looking up out of a hole in the ground.

Where did you take him, I said, what hospital, what did they say exactly? She shrugged. They were very nice, she said, very sympathetic. The doctor talked to her for a long time. It is a very rare conditions, somebody's syndrome, I have forgotten the name already, some damn Swiss or Swede --- what does it matter. He will never speak properly. He'll never do anything properly, it seems. There is something wrong with his brain, something is missing, some vital bit.

She explained it all to me, repeating what the doctor told her, but I was only half-listening. A sort of weariness had come over me, a sort of lethargy. Van is his name, have I mentioned that? Van, he's seven. When I get out he will probably be, what, thirty-something? Jesus, almost as old as I am now. A big child, that's what the country people will call him, not without fondness, at Coolgrange. A big child.

I will not. I will not weep. If I start now, I'll never stop....

I have decided: I will not be swayed. I will plead guilty to murder in the first degree. I think it is the right thing to do. Daphne, when I told her, burst into tears at once. I was astonished, astonished and appalled. What about me, she cried, what about the child? I said, as mildly as I could, that I thought I had already destroyed their lives, and that the best thing I could do was to stay away from them for as long as possible --- forever even --- so that she might have the chance to start afresh.

This, it seems, was not tactful. She just cried and cried, sitting there beyond the glass, clutching a sodden tissue in her fist, her shoulders shaking. Then it all came out, the rage and the shame. I could not make out the half of it through her sobs. She went back over the years. What I had done, and not done. How little I knew. How little I understood. I sat and gazed at her, aghast, my mouth open. I could not speak. How was it possible, that I could have been so wrong about her, all this time? How could I not have seen that behind her reticence there was all this passion, this pain?

I was thinking about a pub I had passed by late on one of my night rambles through the city in that week before I was captured. It was in, I don't know, Stoney Batter, somewhere like that, a working-class pub with protective steel mesh covering the windows and old vomit-stains around the doorway. As I went past, a drunk stumbled out, and for a second, before the door swung shut again, I had a glimpse inside. I walked on without pausing, carrying the scene in my head. It was like something by Jan Steen: the smoky light, the crush of red-faced drinkers, the old boys propping up the bar, the fat woman singing, displaying a mouthful of broken teeth. A kind of slow amazement came over me, a kind of bafflement and grief, at how firmly I felt myself excluded from that simple, ugly, roistering world. That is how I seem to have spent my life, walking by open, noisy doorways, and passing on, into the darkness.

And yet, there are moments too that allow me to think that I am not wholly lost. The other day, for instance, on the way to yet one more remand hearing, I shared the police van with an ancient wino who had been arrested the night before, so he told me, for killing his friend. I could not imagine him having a friend, much less killing one. He talked to me at length as we bowled along, though most of what he said was gibberish. He had a bloodied eye, and an enormous, weeping sore on his mouth. I looked out the barred window at the city streets going past, doing my best to ignore him. Then, when we were rounding sharp bend, he fell off his seat on top of me, and I found myself holding the old brute in my arms.

The smell was appalling, of course, and the rags he wore had a slippery feel to them that made me clench my teeth, but still I held him, and would not let him fall to the floor, and I even --- surely I am embroidering --- I think I may even have clasped him to me for a moment, in a gesture of, I don't know, of sympathy, of comradeship, of solidarity, something like that. Yes, an explorer, that's what I am, glimpsing a new continent from the prow of a sinking ship. And don't mistake me, I don't imagine for a second that such incidents as this, such forays into the new world, will abate my guilt by one whit. But maybe they signify something for the future.

Should I destroy that last paragraph? No, what does it matter, let it stand.

Daphne brought me one of Van's drawings. I have pinned it up on the wall here. It is a portrait of me, she says. One huge, club foot, sausage fingers, a strangely calm, cyclopean eye. Quite a good likeness, really, when I think about it. She also brought me a startling piece of news. Joanne has invited her and the child to come and live at Coolgrange. They are going to set up house together, my wife and the stable-girl. (How quaintly things contrive to make what seems an ending!) I am not displeased, which surprises me. Apparently I am to live there also, when I get out.

Maolseachlainn too was horrified when I told him of my decision. Don't worry, I said, I'll plead guilty, but I don't want any concessions. He could not understand it, and I had not the energy to explain. It's what I want, that's all. It's what I must do. Apollo's ship has sailed for Delos, the stern crowded with laurel, and I must serve my term.

--- From The Book of Evidence
John Banville
©1989 Macmillan Publishing Co.

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