State Dependent Learning was published in 2012 in the online journal Outburst vol. 10.
State Dependent Learning
Two words came with Dots into the morning flotsam. Rosa Greene. He moved with hollow bones, reduced in substance while his tongue ghosted around his mouth with the moreish phonetics of her name.
Drugs were leaving him cold, alcohol straggling on and the earth, broken in plough ridges, led his feet in wrong directions. The darkness thinned overhead as he tackled hedgerows and the air filled out becoming a full, grainy presence. He pushed through it and mist spilled into his lungs, cool fingering his bronchi. His thoughts were animal, superficial, noticing birds stirring and the spectre of a breeze manipulating the rough grass along the unploughed field verge. Empty and a broken mantra playing. Syllabic repetition.
Bright objects stood out against the ploughsoil drawing him to stoop and grab a paw of dirt. He worried his fingers until the clay dropped away leaving a blunted piece of bone or crockery beached on his palm. His pupils still refused to focus. He dropped the object and walked on, unmoved, pushing his feet ahead like mops, his shoes encased within clods of muck.
Through lucid moments memories awoke. The night began laying itself out, episodic between the cabbage crop. A roadmap to remorse. But there were chemicals inhibiting those particular receptors still and he slowly considered all. Mellow. Objective. He could see himself clearly in the fishlens of hindsight.
The black golf hares up the long wooded drive, headlamps peeling back the dark. A distant bright point balloons into an old farmyard festooned with fairy lights. The golf grinds to a stop on the flinty stones, its carapace thrumming with a sub-woofer pulse. Stabs of activity inside as the lads reach around, pulling on their masks. The doors explode open and the three of them howl out, skittering gravel, in grey suits and rubber wolf heads. They bark up a racket, racing into the melee of figures as Die Hard, Spongebob and Betty Page all Yeehaaaa from around the scullery door of the piebald Georgian Manor. Alfred Hitchcock, and a huge box of John Player Blue come out to roar, music pouring from the sash windows. Dots gets out of the car last, in jeans and a t-shirt with the cold loose change of reservation chinking in his bowels.
In the morass a heron bristled. It watched him slosh through the bogged end of a potato rill, his runners sucking down into the gelid rainwater. ‘Fight or flight?’ its black eyes flicked. Beak open and inch with the question. Dots pulled up, stalled by the sheer bottle of the bird. His eyes rose, buoyant, over the lick of crest on its head. Scots Pine, mythic in the distance, blue smoke rising. He knew they were still at it. The dregs of the party carousing on, propped up in the kitchen or lolling in the mould stippled grandeur of the drawing room. Others, secreted away in two's and three's trading fevers in the bedrooms with the hardwood floors. And doubtless, some were still down the basement with the music bullying them around, the DJ slouched persistently over the decks. A final dram to come up on.
Her there somewhere still? Rosa Greene. Permeating the drench of music and amphetamine. Drawing people to her through cushioned confusion. Her film noir name. Her dreaming eyes.
The heron gave way, leaping up. It climbed the air in slow sweeps, hoisting its skinny legs behind. Dots pushed on through offcuts of remembrance. A fire on the lawn. He was drunk when she arrived.
There he is, a few cans the brassier, tinsel wrapped aggressively around his head and slashes of make-up over his face. At the sound of a trumpet blown badly, the front door opens. Lord Elphinstone appears with a trussed platter of withies, on which - a dead seagull arrayed in crepe paper. He intones
“Salute to the Gawm. Found him flightless. Winged by Hi-Ace. Patched him, stitched him, fed him bathed him. Couldn’t save him. Now we’ll blaze him. It’s Valhalla for the Gawm.”
The platter goes on a bric a brac pyre, flames struck to pagan tongued joy. Fagan, all fingers, fondles Bosco over the back of a couch dragged out for the occasion. Down the garden Hellboy tries one of the tinker’s ponies. He hangs on manfully, bashing through sceptres of ragwort. Then he is away, off scene. The heat of the bonfire rakes Dot’s face, threatening his lashes with spontaneous combustion, eyes stripped of film, warmth punching in through bones. The searing shapes of chairs and branches and the engulfed pyre of the Gawm explain physics books. Matter to energy.
He turns and the blaze channels into his back as his nose braves the hungry cold to watch the spew of orange light reveal the warp of the original panes in the bay windows.
He sees her with a thump like a bird hitting a windscreen. Crunch languorous crunch on the gravel. High boots turned down, black at the leg. Dick Whittington debonair. Walking; a hip lush with swish and derision.
Dots stopped in beneath a hazel coppice and sat down near roots about their work breaking up a stone wall. He puked between his legs, the reluctant flux shocking the length of his oesophagus. It squirmed like egg whites into the mucky runnel at his feet. And still he felt fine. Imbued with breathy wisdom.
Dots had learned much over the years. Knowledge of late he had denied himself. Epiphanies of feeling. Landscapes of thought. These were all lessons that could not be kept. It was only with the first kick of LSD lifting the lungs into his throat, or with the nascent mercury rush of MDMA that it all came flooding back. State dependent learning. Knowledge encapsulated somewhere else, in some remote vault, waited there behind every conversation, behind every page, behind every street front; floating in impermeable cists just beyond comprehension. Until he visited again and all of the simple, blissful truths made themselves his with the drink or the drug stinging.
Her also. She demands to be a thing learned. Her dark eyes give weight to her name. Dots pronounces it. They trade cavalier comments in the hall, her dark hair a void in the crowd. They circle each other as the night goes on. Dots takes up behind the decks in the drawing room, flicking out records from the hardcase, crossfading drum and bass to dubstep. He struggles till he finds his form. Electro like old times and she stands to the side, coquettish, her stance full of challenge as the place heaves around her. Later in the darkness of the basement he struggles to make her out through the dancing shapes. Her lips to his ear. They exchange shouted words, intimate as whispers as the beat presses down on them. As her brown eyes press down on his. Two pills on her palm. He almost hesitates.
They go together, further into the night, her finger on his lips, the acrid sharp of the drug and wine to wash it down. They go together, dancing and rising. They feel it together, time passing. Thoughts unstructured, immediate, vital. Until she leans in and kisses. Her huge ghoulish pupils wash him over and feel some subtle restraint. She understands. He is masquerading. Giving himself up to her - to a point. She walks away, tearing the membrane. He wanders up to the garden, drug calm.
Out on the uncut grass he sees it coming, that pivotal point. He asks himself if the drug is leaving and, as always, it is so. Self-affirming. He stands in the garden hanging onto its coat-tails as a touch of divinity departs his body, leaving it handled. Standing back in the kitchen she has turned too, shooting hateful glances, her mouth all over a tawdry Samuel Beckett. She spikes smiles in his direction as he spends conversation dimly in return for a joint coming round. Picks Bombay Mix absently from a bowl. And it is just as well. The will is gone, the fulcrum pitched. Nothing left but to go. He leaves her there hanging from someone else’s arm, brutally sucking an off-white line from the table. He goes under the barbed wire fence at the end of the garden. And is swallowed by the fields.
Dots felt tiredness. He was walking again. Couldn’t quite remember starting. Silver sea suggested itself beyond distant dunes. At the head of the estuary, a green mound hunched up from the straight, crisp tillage lines. Its shape confused with bramble and gorse and a low blackthorn tree, striving up from its summit, tore into the skyline. Dots moved towards it. Drawn towards the presence of the thing just as, with animal succinctness, he had liked some fields and felt unwelcome in others.
From up top Dots could see the emotion but couldn’t yet feel it. Disgust. A vitrified thing suspended in the morning chill. It was waiting for him to thaw out, for the infuriating blasé afterglow of the drug to dissolve. It would be waiting for him in a few hours’ time when he would be weak, its mouth full of memories. Of Lar. Of a similar morning with the dawn come grey and unwanted into a house of fug and mangled forms. Lar dancing raggedly to a persistent beat.
“We need smokes,” he had said, “to get through the morning.”
Dots agreed, oxygen just wasn’t cutting it. He had pretended not to notice as Lar slipped out, car keys in hand. Dots was mad for the tobacco tug in his chest. Impatient when he had to wait. And wait. At the church he had no prayers to say.
They had all promised to give it up after the funeral, all the old crowd but he had seen every one of them since then on nights like this, reluctant to approach, as he too was reluctant. With guilt. Sliding past blankly in the crush of a dancefloor.
Dots slowly became aware of a sound pushing. A sound of steps. Someone moving towards him. He stood, alarmed, and the brushing sound faltered. He turned to see a man approaching from the road. They stood a stone’s throw from each other, chests held out unsure and it may as well have been the primeval dawn. Two beings meeting in the wilds. The stranger's steps had slowed, his stride broken, but he had not stopped completely. He assessed the situation with small moves forward, taking in Dots’ shape, the jeans, the t-shirt, the tinsel. Dots assessed him in turn. Tall and all shoulder, full around the middle. Beard-dark jowl and a monkey hat down low. The look of an army surplus shopper. Black pockety coat over a red flannel shirt.
“Morning,” Dots said, his voice husky, startled at having spoken and he felt a spell broken as thrushes fled from the sound. The stranger said nothing. He came on now with more confidence. Dots sat again, the makeup stains feeling neon on his face. He rubbed his hand uselessly over his cheeks and pulled his shoulders in, suddenly feeling the cold and the comedown. The stranger sat a judicious distance away. An edgy energy filled the space between them. Body language. The dog and the wolf.
In a petulant act of revenge, Dots didn’t react as the stranger took out a notebook and began to write. He focused on Rosa Greene, holding her in his mind, a slim flame atop a candle. Her eyes and her shape, a synthesis of challenge and beauty. He tried to hold the feeling of her. The knowledge of her as he moved closer and closer towards reality. He couldn't stop it. The proximity wore at him. He was unable to give himself over anymore. The words started.
“Beautiful morning isn’t it?” Dots said and finally felt sick.
On it would go, they would exchange platitudes, awkwardness, Rosa Greene would fade, and when he thought of her again it would be at home with the churning guilt and embarrassment of a sober session with the mirror.
But no response came. The stranger put a finger to his lips and his hand disappeared into his coat coming out with a slim black Dictaphone. He spoke clearly into the aperture as Dots looked on, admiring the grain of his beard.
“29th April. Prehistoric Mound. Portmarnock. North Dublin. Fourth Session, attempting to emulate previous successes at this location in the recording of EVPs”
The stranger eyed Dots as he spoke, full of challenge. EVPs. Electric Voice Phenomena. A conversation had taken them in sometime during the years of long, drunk-stoned nights. Blood-drenched eyes and hoarse voices, and he had a memory of someone enthusing. Something about ghostly voices captured on tape recordings. In his mind, brown photographs of laboratories. Victorian experiments. A world before science and superstition had been separated. Valve electrics and fez hatted mediums inhabiting the same sphere.
The stranger pressed record, placed the device on the ground and contented himself with staring placidly out to sea, his wormy fingers clasped around his knees. Dots stayed respectfully quiet and, as the silence stretched on, he slipped back into setting thoughts of her.
Rosa Greene. He would see her again. At a party or art show. Or worst of all, God forbid, he would see her at the graveside some quiet morning, the two of them face to face and sober. And they would not speak. Already her features were dissolving. She had become a smudge, a smear of light on the lens of his memory. That is what would stay. And the name, like some artefact surfacing now and again with touches of guilt and warmth. And had he been speaking? Saying her name out loud? Its lovely improbability, its pronouncibility, its tabloid immediacy?
Ten minutes of silence had left its impression on the magnetic tape, charging it one way or the other. The stranger pressed the rewind button and the mechanism whirred eagerly. Dots felt uneasy, too close to a private act. He almost got up to leave as the tape played out with the light wind sounding brutal by turns, caressing the pickups in the mic. But curiosity held him still. Nothing.
“What’s it for?” Dots asked, his voice aiming at inoffensive, as the stranger set up the Dictaphone for a second run.
“Electric Voice Phenomena,” he said flatly.
The stranger looked up sharply.
“Who knows,” he said, guarded, “ghosts, echoes, thoughts, static. Each explanation is as plausible as the next.”
“It's good to keep an open mind,” said Dots, trying to put the strained coat-full of shoulder at ease.
Tough Dots couldn’t see him face on, the stranger made a move that suggested he had rolled his eyes.
“At the party were you?” he said, the distain heavy on his words.
“There was some commotion at a house up the road as I was passing. The police were pulling in.”
“That right?” Dots said, chastised. His graffitied head hanging lower. He changed tack.
“Do you think it has something to do with the mound? Prehistoric voices?” he trailed off as the stranger pressed the record button on the Dictaphone, signalling the close of the conversation.
Dots sat back, deflated but determined to stay on. So the police had arrived. And ever it was so, someone pushing themselves too far, losing the head and taking a hammer to something. Always the same story. No more they had all said after the accident yet here he was, still corroding himself. Trying to root out something he had once felt. Some knowledge he had once tasted. He lay back on the mound, the fragile blue of the sky hurting his eyes. Electric Voice Phenomena.
“Compelling to think of prehistoric voices trailing through the centuries….or a voice from the other side.”
The thought suddenly made him uneasy and he spoke to to move things along.
“Background static is possible, with all of the broadcasts circling the globe.”
“Please stop” said the stranger “there’ll be no anything with your waffle”.
Dots sucked in on his teeth loudly. He remembered the pouch of tobacco in his back pocket and sat up, digging it out. He loaded a cigarette paper to the hilt. The stranger looked over with the rustling of the pouch. He put a stern finger to his lips and Dots responded with an eye roll of his own, sparking his lighter. Minutes passed until the stranger stopped the tape and started to rewind.
“Have you recorded many voices?” Dots asked.
“A few,” the stranger said.
“And...” Dots said, “Anything decipherable?”
“You have to be careful,” he said, “the human inclination is to impose meaning onto sound. I might hear one thing and you might hear another. There might be no meaning, just sound.” He pressed play on the tape.
“If you’re looking for messages, go to the Salvation Army”.
“Prick,” Dots said voicelessly, settling down on his elbows, smoking as the Dictaphone played back its crackling approximation of silence.
Smoke stung his eye as seagulls drifted overhead. He was thinking of the final voyage of the Gawm when a sound came creeping unannounced through the static. A distorted low wail edging out from the reproduced silence, and Dots felt the heckles rising. He sat up, shaken. Something familiar. The stranger was ecstatic. His fingers scrambled to rewind the tape. He played it back with a frisson and his lips moving with the sound and his pencil busy in the notebook. They both sat, scalded by the voice, trying to order the syllables, trying to fix meaning to the sound. The stranger played it back over and over, a thin lilting wail. Human. Floating disembodied, like radio waves, passing through air and buildings and bodies. Un-carnal. Dots shivered and felt pierced by it. The tape stopped and the silence reasserted itself, closing in around them, flush with their bodies. Dots held on to his head thinking of that silence entering him, harbouring god knows what just beneath its surface. Rosa Greene. Her name loud in his head. And then there was a siren screaming. Down the country lanes an ambulance passed violently, shredding the moment.
He struggled up. Rosa, her name a fresh scar on his tongue. He took off at a run, jumping from the mound, his feet kicking over the drills. Rosa. He had left her there alone, sinking. Stupid bastard. As he ran through the morning the cold air hazed his cheeks, deadened his lips and Dots imagined wraiths scattering. All of the empty space around him took on new substance. Full of shuffling disembodied things, some of whose faces he recognised. Terror. He fought on, barrelling through the hedgerows. Branches tugged at his hair and drew red lines across his forehead. Blood pumped sickly through him and there was a dull ache in his kidneys. At the barbed wire fence he went down, his foot catching. His face punched into the wild dampness. The wet grass all over him and that mushroom earthy smell, permeating him like the panic. He pushed himself up and ran on.
The siren had stopped when he arrived but he could see the house ahead with the courtyard pulsing in the blue light. He rounded the stables skidding on the gravel and went down again. Pebbles embedded themselves darkly into the butts of his palms. And when he looked up she was there. Cold, leaning against the redbrick. She was chewing on her finger and watching with the rest of them as the paramedics tried to talk down one of the Wolf Pack from where he had climbed up onto the barn, standing on the corrugated iron, holding a bloodied arm and his eyes huge and animal in his head. The police pushed among the crowd asking questions.
“Rosa” Dots said.
She looked over and saw him. She read the worry on his face.
“You alright” he said, breathless.
She came over, her own face still vacant but with a sorrow to be read in the shadows around her eye sockets. The frank morning showed a purple tinge to her skin and the huge fixed pupils seemed to inhale light into her bloodshot eyes. Damaged beauty. Her arms came up around his waist and she burrowed into him. Her body felt hard and cold and yet there was a tremble somewhere inside.
“It’s alright Rosa” he said. And the familiar tear sting came to his eye.
“What would Lar think of us?”
She burrowed deeper at that name, her face rooting into his chest, a wounded creature and him not any better. She jolted when a sarcastic cheer went up with a paramedic slipping and coming down noisily onto the iron roof. He soothed her as best he could, walking her away from the ash blue scene, the pulsing lights and the manic eyes.
It was ever in these dark corners that they sought each other out, chemicals militating in them. Always coming back to take a dose and relearn mistakes. He led her towards the fields holding her close. Rosa allowed herself melt into him, his body pliant, accepting. The plough ridges guided them away through the solid air, unknown sounds passing through their bodies and a sun rising stronger stretched their shadows far, far behind, into a world still waiting the fullness of day.