Art Pact 229 - Pits and Peaks


A life thus scattered, as all men's are (and all women's, true, although no man such as I can truly understand that), with such rare peaks of happiness and infrequent pits of despair, but otherwise a flat plain of everyday grind, neither elating nor crushing. Those grey days blend into each other so much that in my life's ledger they might all be subsumed under a single heading, a descriptive flow with variables X and Y and Z, such as an algebraical factoriser might use in his lonely scribblings. One might by rolling a die for each slight variation (say the food I ate on a certain day, or who I visited, or where I walked) throw games of chance for years without once coming upon a combination which I had not already fulfilled. Such a game of Yacht my life would make!

There were moments, however, as I have alluded, in which this everyday script was thrown to one side with great force by the hand of fate, the dice table overturned, if you will, by an angry gamer who tired of his slow losses - for such a life is. One may not suffer the shirt from one's back with each roll of the bones, but as one grows longer and longer in the tooth one quickly realises that the stake in this game is life itself, the precious little chips that are seconds and those more solid ones that are months and years. A loss so subtle that a man might not notice it until he is almost bled dry, that is the price of this game - no buy-in, no limits on play or loss, a man sits down at the table one day and if he does not rise of his own accord or suffer an interruption to his game he may never stand again.

One such moment attended the death of my father. We were estranged - he had himself long ago been given entirely to the game, immersing himself in a routine so straightjacketed that no variables would have been necessary to describe his twilight years, merely a page describing his day and a footnote instructing "singulos dies usque ad mortem". He dined similarly, slept similarly, was visited by the members of our family (me excepted) on a regular rota - although in truth it did not matter who visited him, since my stepsister informed me at the graveside that he treated all comers alike: sons, daughters, wives and former wives, all of them subjected to the tedious recital of all that they had done wrong in the past, and yet how good they were compared to his one rogue offspring (that is to say, me). You might think, of course, that being so distant from my parent I might not be much affected emotionally by his passing. In truth you would be right, because although I felt sadness, I introspected quite clearly that the sadness was not for the passing of my progenitor but a prescience of my own ultimate ending.

But this was no more than a distracting sideshow, a monument constructed in a devil's cauldron on the edge of a great abyss. My funereal musings on the way to and from the ceremony (for my father's dislike of me was not so pronounced in my other relations, and they had for one reason or another insisted that I accompany them back to the grand house for the gathering and for the reading of the will) were all-consuming, but I understood them to be shallow. I had felt such gloom-clouds over me before, and they were themselves just as perishable as I was, so that I knew that within a few days I would be back to my old heedless self, gambling away my days as recklessly as a pauper in a casino. No, it was what transpired in the house itself that was to throw me into a deeper torment.

The gathering was a sombre affair, although it might easily have been a gay one given how little affection any of our clan had for its patriarch. But there were outsiders there - of whom I might have been one, since there was perhaps no way for the others to know whether my own feelings towards my father matched his towards me - and so we were all reserved, and no words were exchanged that might malign the quondam head of the house. We drank the tea the servants provided us, we nibbled listlessly at the cucumber sandwiches and various hors d'oeuvres that had been laid out, and we swapped meaningless niceties about the prospect of heaven and the ways in which the old man would be missed by the village (we carefully refrained from revealing whether we would miss him ourselves, but attributed great sympathy and emotion to the local peasantry). Thus we frittered away a few more hours of our lives that could have been spent improving ourselves or at the very least pursuing some more colourful pleasure, but eventually all of our guests save my father's lawyer made their excuses and left, and the family was alone for the reading of the will.

To say that I expected nothing would be an understatement. I had not even expected to be at the reading of the will, and even as the solicitor was going through the preamble I expected that my share of the estate would be no more than a stern imprecation towards the real inheritors that they would be visited with severe sanctions should I be allowed to step over the threshold of the old manor. To my great surprise, though, I was mentioned as a beneficiary. Not of the house, nor of my father's carefully-shepherded fortune, but of a book in the library and a small parcel of land on the southernmost tip of the estate: a section of scrubland running up to a cliff-edge. I knew it well; unsuitable for agriculture, it was chiefly remarkable for an obelisk which had been erected many centuries before our family took control of the land. It was worthless, or so I thought, but even so it was more than I had expected from the old man.

Judging by the confusion on the part of my family, I was not alone in my surprise.

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