BY Sylvia Brownrigg in Profiles | 03 MAR 98
Featured in
Issue 39

Interview with a Dead Deceiver

Fiction in response to the work of Tacita Dean

BY Sylvia Brownrigg in Profiles | 03 MAR 98

I sat alone in a cold house by the sea in the night, missing. I was missing. When you're missing that way, deep in fogged solitude, you sometimes make up someone for company. Do you know that trick? Someone to talk you through it, a god or friend, some interlocutor. I didn't intend an interview. I intended something more level, between equals, something more like conversation; but before you know it when you're talking to someone the rule over the words has slipped out of your hands, and that is what happened in this case. Dead, accused of deceiving, not spoken to for years, this man, this ex-sailor, assumed (probably rightly - he sensed an unsafe curiosity in me) that I was after his waterlogged secrets. Still, perhaps to correct the record - the ignoble things said about him after his mad death - he decided to speak to me. To embark on his tale. It's in memory of that night, and generally to honour a whole host of other doomed departures, that I transcribe our invisible interview here.

SD: So why'd you do it?

DD: What?

Pretend to be something you're not.

What's that?

A great adventurer; a hero; someone who could see beyond what's here. Someone who could look to infinity and still keep his head.

I wondered whether you did it for the glory.

Is that what they say about me?

That's one view, that you did it for the glory.

I see! And what glory would that be, exactly?

Oh: the triumph. The heroism. The I-did-it-all-alone, I-made-my-mark story. The one man and his boat story. The middle-aged man and the sea. The 'Which brand of chocolate did you eat to keep yourself going?' You know what I mean - the newspapers! The TV coverage! All those pretty girls who would want you!

I never did it for the girls.

Not even the pretty ones?

Especially not the pretty ones.

Well, then, another view: that you did it in order to escape.

From what?

Who knew? Debts; toothache; depression. A bad marriage. A bad family.

I didn't have a bad family.

No, but you know the kinds of things people say.

They may not have been good, always - who is? - but you couldn't call them bad. Same goes for my marriage. Okay, it wasn't good all the time. Maybe it was even bad, a good part of the time. But goodness ran through it, goodness moved all the way through it, like a river. Like a river...

But rivers are freshwater.

Do you think I don't know that?

And the sea is all salt.

Yes, that too is something I know. Surprisingly enough. I wasn't quite as ignorant as everyone liked to pretend, after.

So what are you saying?

I'm saying: maybe I left because I was looking for salt. My life: anyone's life: maybe its waters are too clear, sometimes. Too bloody clear. And that's when you think to head out, looking for salt.

It's not true to say I was depressed.

But you had moments of purposelessness?

Doesn't everybody?

We're not talking about everybody. We're talking about you, a man, bold, in a tie and a jacket, an ordinary-faced figure people believed in, a man people believed could lift himself and his country out of some submerged state they were all in, into the air - the air of a new era, the success of a boat race, the victory in seafaring, an old business this island nation once knew something about, that rests in the bones of its history, that once gave it some pride.

Ah yes.

How do you mean, 'ah yes'?

You're very pleased with yourself when you get going, aren't you?

Look, I'm just trying to explore -

Yes, you people, you journalists, always are.

But I'm not a journalist.

Of course you are. Don't be ridiculous. Any person with a pen and a journal - look at you - who comes pestering the dead (though it's worse for the living, certainly, it's worse for the living), looking for answers and sayings, brief words and aphorisms; what is that but a journalist? A journalist. Someone who feeds off the journeys of others, the adventures of others, cheapening them, taking them in in order to travel them out again in that thin kind of print, that newsprint that makes more of a mark on a reader's oily fingers that on his mobile heart or mind. Journalism: an act of writing that allows people to sit still. Everyone but the interviewee, the subject - the poor corpse who had to move around, travel way out there, die in the course of his active life.

Do you feel journalists were unfair to you in what they wrote? Before your death, or after?

Why should I tell you?

And yet.


There is, perhaps, something I should say.


The way my eye went round and round: and I waited for it to see something new, or to say something to me I could use, but my eye wasn't like that, the way that it should have been. My eye was curiously blind. Not literally (mostly; though sometimes it was, truly, which made movement difficult) but in a manner of speaking. In one manner of speaking, my eye was blind as a bare bulb.


I won't say it was someone else who blinded me, because that isn't fair, or right. I don't believe in that image of being blinded by love. It wasn't her prettiness that got to me, anyway. It wasn't her prettiness that sent me. It was the sounds that she made, that moved my mind like the wind can, like a lone wind does when there's nothing else around to distract you, when the wind enters your mind's ear and plays with the memories there. Do you know what I mean?

Yes. I do. This is something I've known.

Good. Good. Then perhaps you'll understand me. Because that's how it was with her, and her sound. With her voice. The voice I couldn't stop listening to. It took a sea and its symphonies to wash her out of my mind. Now - can you hear that?

What? Her voice?

No, no! Not her voice. Those sounds. The sounds that, layered over one another, can make a world to someone who can... or to someone who can't...

Someone - ?

Who, in spite of his best efforts, came to a point where he had a hard time seeing, any more.

Someone - ?

I can't speak of the someone. I want to think of the sounds. Let's talk about sound.

So you can explain why we're here?

Yes. Because, you see, here - here in the lighthouse is the closest we could get on land to the shape of my life at the time of my death. If you want to understand that, you have to get a feel for this place. Even though I don't trust you - I trust you about as far as I could throw you, not that I'm tempted to throw you - I wanted you to know at least this. Now stop asking me questions for one damn minute. Just sit here and listen, with me. To this place. To this sensation. Watch this late light as it stalks the dark sand, and think of how old the phenomenon of night is. How much older, even, than breathing or speaking.

What do you notice?

That the space - has been filled.

Yes. That's it. The sounds fill the lighthouse, so that a house of light becomes not that at all but a house of sound, a house of voices and movement and drama, even, all those things you need to feel life is being lived, that life might even go on, in spite of your deep doubt that it could.

Which sounds do you love, then?

Oh. Which do I love? Where to begin! It's an embarrassment of riches. For instance: you wouldn't think it lovable, but there is something, first, in the turning sound of this light, this house - light, that comforts me. It's like the slow, steady whirring of my own troubled mind, which revolves its griefs and anxieties as the machine revolves its light. The two find comfort in each other: my solitary mind from this soundtrack of industry; and, in turn, this mechanized bulb from the companionship of my busy brain.

Tell me another sound that you cherish.

The ocean breathing. That heartbreak beat, that wash, that sweeping of the earth, that momentary rinse.

Any others?

Oh yes. Most of all - you'll think this odd, probably - it is the bird sounds that I love. Those are what hold me. Those were what kept me alive for as long as I stayed alive, out in my boat. They were the ones who taught me their secrets about time.

Can you hear the gull songs?

I can, yes. I've never thought of them as songs. I've thought of them, I guess, more as cries.

It's an easy mistake to make. Once you get through, the way I did - is it happening to you yet? Can you feel it here? - you begin to see that most cries have songs in them, actually. Time isn't what you think. (The same goes for a woman's cries of passion: but I can't speak of that now.) A gull cry is short, a simple arc; or that's how it seems from here, from on land. But on the sea - oh, out on the sea a cry can wrap itself around your mind for hours, it becomes a long thread of sound: it becomes a story. It has more sounds and notes in it than you heard at first. It may have words in it, even. It will tell you wisdoms about the sky and the water that no one on dry land could possibly know. And it was those wisdoms, you see, that finally helped me to navigate.

That's how I began to make my way around on my journey. It wasn't anything like people said, after. (That I'd just done the straightforward thing, and lost my mind.) How would they know what went on? They said I rowed around in circles, like a child would, hardly moving out of the range of a phone call from my former home. But as I tried to write (as I tried to explain), the journeys I took in those short days - they'd seem short to you, but it was a lifetime to me; that's why I didn't feel cheated when I died, that's why it was a good life I led, and a full one - well, those journeys were beautiful. They were beautiful.

Can I ask you where you went? On these journeys?

Of course you can ask. That's your job, as I've already mentioned. To rip the guts out of a journey not your own. But, listen: I wouldn't have brought you here if I didn't want to tell you something of it. That would have been cruel of me, and I'm not a cruel man. I'm not a cruel man in death, and I wasn't in life. No one ever said that of me.

But I can't describe the place. You'd need a poet for that. All I can tell you is where it was. There has been some confusion about that; people have not understood there was a place there. They thought I was swimming, or rowing, on the spot, making no progress. This is because my movement was time-wise, which explains to you why they were unable to see it.

What would you call it? If you had to name it, the place that you went to?

The place I went to, the great place I discovered? What would I call it? Oh, that's easy. I'd call it before. That was the grace of it. I went back to before. Before everything. Before I'd made any mistakes. Before there was ever a need to escape or deceive. Before I had to wear that suit or buy that boat; before I gave an interview in which I promised success; before I posed, recklessly, for some Sunday magazine feature. Then, beautifully, further back too: to before I married, or knew what it was to marry; before I knew that childhood can break your back and fatherhood your heart; before I'd felt pride hanging heavy around my thick neck. Before I tasted the pleasure of a disallowed dream, in which sleep brings you hidden bliss and you wake with illicitness stinging your tongue. Before I'd smelled failure, or weakness, or the thick stink of rejection. Before I'd ever spoken when I shouldn't, or said something untrue, or shouted at someone till they cried or stared at them coolly till they begged me to shout at them. Before I'd figured out how rare silence is, the kind of silence that soothes; how even rarer a conversation that can open the soul. Before, in short, I'd ever felt the unhappy joy of love, and its bitter twin - language.

The sea knows nothing of mistakes. It erases them the instant you make them. It erases the successes, too, of course, it doesn't discriminate: it wipes out the good jokes and the artworks, the press profiles and the love letters. But out in my sound boat, none of that mattered any more. What freedom that was. What perfection. I miss it now. Even still; even here in my lighthouse.

I never did it for the glory. Do you understand that now?

Yes. I think I do. I do.

I never did it to lie, god knows, I didn't do it to embarrass anyone, or pretend to be something I'm not. I did it, it must be clear now -

I think it is, yes -

I did it in some botched effort to go back to the beginning. To go back, and back; to sail in lone solace on the wide, wordless place of an earlier time.

Sylvia Brownrigg is the author of Ten Women Who Shook the World (1997) and the forthcoming novel The Metaphysical Touch (1998). She is at work on Crossing Two Lands, a collaboration with the painter Judith Tucker.