He smells nice in the plane. Despite his enthusiasm, he doesn't fidget in the seat next to me. He is respectful and polite. He spends most of his time reading a biography of Bruce Chatwin. Looking over his shoulder, I see the subject of that book is, also, a mean-spirited soul, though simultaneously a luminous artist. Familiar territory.
He offers me another book he has with him. Nostromo, by Joseph Conrad. He says nervously, proudly, half ashamedly, I’ve read it five times.
I look at its opening lines:
“In the time of Spanish rule, and for many years afterwards, the town of Sulaco – the luxuriant beauty of orange gardens bears witness to its antiquity – had never been commercially anything more important than a coasting port with a fairly large local trade in ox hides and indigo…”
I continue reading, learning about the Golfo Placido, half-distractedly. My companion continues to devour his own book, only very occasionally glancing across to see how I am doing with mine. I drift off to sleep. Oswald invades my dreams. I start awake, to almost appreciate the benign presence next to me.
Then a coincidence has us chuckling. We both order rubbery omelettes. We hanker after them and both admit, shamefacedly, to a perverse delight in the nothingness of airline food. He takes pictures of the meals, at Beginning, Middle, and End; towards a photo-essay he says that will reveal how time is sliced, even when it’s not a sliceable thing. The young writer quizzes me at mealtimes, in preparation for his interview. I'm not much help as an Oswald expert.
The one question of his that slowly twists in my mind, like a cordless drill running out of power, to stop, yet still stuck, is: What colour are his eyes? I can't see the point of this question – except to reveal that I can't answer it. I mumble a non-answer.
And keep thinking for hours afterwards, that perhaps mumbling uncertainty (except, of course in my precise professional diction) is the essential story of my life. And perhaps this trip may offer an alternative. But first, to find land again; rather it finds us, a steaming forest-scape rises up, breathing a warm and fetid humidity, until a ragged little runway opens up in front of the plane. We bounce twice on landing. Tyres squeal briefly. So do I, but not frighteningly.
To find Oswald Ormsly: as simple as asking directions at the airport car rental. It appears mon pere is a local legend, even if no-one appears to have actually met him. He’s their pet recluse. He’s more like a vapour, an illusion, but a pervasive one all the same. A national myth. A foul mist.
At this point, my travelling companion displays an idiosyncrasy, insisting on taking the thirteenth car in the row. The second-to-last one, as it happens. Normally, with the tiredness vested in me by long flights, I would be irritated with this. But not this time. I am more taken by noticing his birth date on the car hire form. He is thirteen days younger than me.
Oswald Ormsby? The response is the same at the small hotel we check into, a faded colonial edifice, looking out over a riverboat tours replica sidewheel steamer, the mainstay of the boutique tourism industry in this tiny country. Yes, they say at the front desk of the hotel, they know of him. But no, never seen him. Yes, they know his castle is two hours’ drive that way. It’s even marked on the tourist map. Next to the icon, there's an over-sticker on the map, that says Private - do not visit.
The journalist’s sense of wonderment is charming. He insists on taking a picture of my hands holding that map. As I am looking down, I see he wears old, well-worn shoes, the only shabby aspect of him so far.
We head out to my father’s place first thing next morning. We stop, at a rickety wooden bridge, for a breakfast of fruit juice and hotel sandwiches. We sit on a picnic bench thick with 1,000 layers of dark green paint. The surrounding forest is awash with birdsong. The river at our feet slides silently, deeply, tropically.
Without warning, he bends over sharply, and vomits a spray of rubbery omelette remnants over my shoes, his shoes. Covers his mouth and nose with prayer-shaped hands. Eyes plead apology.
Good thing there’s a river to wash in, I say.
I take over driving. We sweep past the hand-splashed Keep Away! sign at the gate. Past another that says I mean it, dolts!
The roadway has grass knee-high in the middle, between the tyre tracks, brushing the underside of the car with what could be a reassuring sibilance. Sweeping into view, the grand citadel of outsider art is looking shabby, half forgotten.
As if the jungle is claiming it back faster than he can create it. (I have only seen it in rare photographs, but still, it appears as an essay in entropy, a rotten dream backsliding. But then, you could say that is my prejudice.) The writer is all alert, his breakfast blitz-puke seemingly forgotten.
There seems to be no life at the place. I walk around. Ugly mosaics stare at me. Concrete gargoyles cackle silently. Strange weathervanes sit crooked, rusted stuck, oblivious to the wind. A dark grey bird sits on one spire. It calls in a harsh groan, repetitively. It sounds like a private expletive. The sun breaks over the thick line of trees. A door with cracked window glass creaks.
I find Oswald in bed with a woman my age. They’re going at it like rabbits while three kids mutely squat by the door at the far side of the room, big eyes, sticky hair, running noses.
Things begin to happen faster.
He clambers out, wrinkly, naked, dripping.
I lose it. I swipe him furiously across his face with my travel bag. The clasp draws a jagged gash across his grey-bearded cheek. He bleeds, slowly at first, then profusely. I pant. The woman scurries out, gathering up the clothes and the children.
Euphie, says he, bewildered. He licks the blood streaming past his lips.
Oswald, I'm here. Still panting.
A semblance of order is restored. Oswald, who has always appreciated the unexpected, appears to enjoy the long interview with Dart. He raves on about his international importance as an ‘in-out-sider-artist’, the pre-eminent one within this absurdist self-made category. His rambling justification of why he has done nothing for five years (‘A Fast’, he calls it) is almost poignant.
The portrait taken of him, with soaked bandage, his untended ‘environment’ all around him, the grubby kids attached to his knees, I know will feature prominently in the articles.
We stay for hours, all uneasy for me, but not so for Dart, the writer. The woman and I prepare a lunch, a kind of paella. She speaks no English, I none of her native tongue. I see she is pregnant. I look. She nods, yes.
What to say to my father? There is nothing to say. I only hope – silently – that Dart has taken enough photos. (Later I will look at each one intently, from the pile of prints Dart will send me, before destroying them one-by-one. I keep only one image of the woman and the children.)
The tropical day comes to its short end. Rum for Oswald. Warm Coke for me and Dart and the kids.
We leave. Oswald says: That’s it. Bugger off. Don’t want to see you again. Slaps Dart on the shoulder, half playfully. The woman waves shyly.
He dares not touch me. He glances briefly at me. I note his eyes are a cold pale green. Don’t forget your sisters, he says. I fume about this for hours. But then, I knew I would be angry – at whatever he did, whatever he said. And whatever I did.
I drive back in the dark, headlights picking up whitened figures of forest animals crossing the road, and twice closer to the city, groups of drunken men weaving, waving machetes on rubbery arms. Dart says nothing for most of the drive back to the hotel.
We do not return to the castle. We do the river cruise to fill in the time. We see caimans in the water. They feed them raw meat to delight the tourists. Are we delighted? I don’t know. Dart shrugs. A chuckle from me – the first in days.
We fly out three days later. I remain consumed by rage. He is quiet.
We return to our civilised city. Despite the excitement of the successful encounter (from his perspective anyway), Dart appears pale and sweaty. We part, fatigued, hardly registering, at the airport. Trains to separate destinations.
I hear from him three weeks later. A text that says:
Sorry about no contact. Am in hospital with
strange tropical disease.
Maybe that explains the spew.
Side effect = have lost my hearing.
They say it could come back.
Story going well.
Thanks for everything,
And, thirteen minutes later, another text:
May I see you again?