Authors: Morag Joss
Our Picnics in the Sun
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2013 by Morag Joss
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Delacorte Press, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, New York, a Penguin Random House Company.
and the H
colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.
“A Summer Night,” copyright © 1937 by Random House, Inc., and renewed 1965 by W. H. Auden; from
W. H. Auden Collected Poems
by W. H. Auden. Used by permission of Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Our picnics in the sun: a novel/Morag Joss.
eBook ISBN: 978-0-345-53967-0
1. Married people—Fiction. 2. Bed and breakfast accommodations—Fiction. I. Title.
Jacket design: Carlos Beltrán
Jacket photograph: © Irene Lamprakou/Trevillion Images
Nor ask what doubtful act allows
Our freedom in this English house,
Our picnics in the sun.
W. H. A
from “A Summer Night”
Let us examine more closely the significance of this vague word, reality … We may regard it as embodied in the physical world, the world of land and sea, of sky and trees, of sunshine and of storm. The real therefore will be to us that which we can touch and see, smell and taste … and the testimony of the senses is the superior court of appeal in controverted questions. But the world of reality may be regarded from quite a different point of view, as the world of consciousness … the experiences of the inner self … It is a realm of ideas, of memory images, of fancy, of will, and of desire.
John Grier Hibben (1861–1933)
The Problems of Philosophy
Police and Social Services are appealing to the public to help identify a man alleged to have preyed on an isolated couple, one of whom was disabled. The man carried out a “sustained, callous and premeditated deception” over several months before disappearing, it is claimed. Describing him only as tall and aged around 30, police wish to question him in connection with charges including theft, cruelty, assault, and obtaining goods by deception. Attempts to trace the man have so far proved unsuccessful.
Claiming to be homeless and unemployed last year, the man talked his way into the home of the couple whom he “probably considered gullible,” said the couple’s only son, who lives abroad. Promising to help with their run-down small-holding, he manipulated his mother’s affections and persuaded her to let him move in, the son alleges.
“There is no doubt he callously and systemically exploited their goodwill in order to obtain control over their lives. Had I not intervened there is no knowing how far he might have gone in pursuit of his own ends,” he said.
Police declined to comment on the present condition of the couple. A neighbor who asked not to be named said they were known to be eccentric. “They kept themselves to themselves. We never saw them,” he said. The couple’s lifestyle may have been a contributory factor in their vulnerability to abuse, a police spokesman said. Superintendent Fred Davis of West Country Police said, “People who are in their retiring years are entitled to feel safe … the sad thing is that in their later years, it seems this couple had no one else to turn to.”
The West Country Examiner
oward Morgan was on the floor of the old pig shed in transition from Cobra to Locust when a blood vessel burst in his head. As his brain began to leak, a sudden cloud shift high in the sky cleared a gap for the sun; bluish needles of light from several holes in the roof slanted through the amber underworld of the shed and landed in small, brilliant studs on the floor around him. He shook the hair from his eyes, lifted his chest, stretched his arms back, and wondered how he could have failed to notice them before: a myriad particles of stone and straw dust spinning in each slender column of light. He would be able to count every sparkling one, he thought, if he gazed long enough. Time slowed. Shining dust went on dancing in the air of the old pig shed. Howard gazed. Time stopped.
Was it happening? Was he poised at last in yogic bliss, on a bridge between the physical and divine worlds, reaching through the one toward the other? If only Deborah could see him now. Just then another cloud passed in front of the sun, the light beams vanished, and Howard’s bliss (if it was that) vanished, too. Of course the proper place of bliss was in the striving for it, he knew that; it lay in the virtue of the attempt. Nonetheless he felt a little cheated. Should a glimpse of eternity (if it was that) leave him feeling so sad and emptied out? The big hand of his watch beside him on the floor moved to seven minutes to nine, and pain began to pound in the left side of his head.
Howard abandoned Locust, eased himself out of position and tried to sit cross-legged, but his body was slow, his limbs heavy and rigid. He tilted over and fell on his side, off the yoga mat. The next
thing he noticed was that his cheek against the cool floor was strangely loose and squashed-up under one eye, and it was partly obscuring his view of the watch, which was now just a few inches away. Several dry wires from his beard were caught between his lips and he could not push out his tongue to lick them away. But he could hear a faraway snoring that was nonetheless coming from his own nostrils, and he could smell the stony, dank, animal scent of the ground where he lay. It was likely, he found himself thinking, that some time had passed since his face had landed there. He reached out his right hand and brought the watch up close. Through the tickling veil of his hair he saw that the numbers had gone and in their place was a circular tangle of unintelligible marks. The pins radiating from the center of the watch were familiar but he could not grasp what they meant, either. He lost his grip and let his arm drop to the ground. The watch rolled away.
There was always a reason for pain, Howard believed. It was a protest, some misalignment of mind, body, spirit, and cosmos, a disharmony for which the sufferer had to be, in karmic terms, responsible. But this pain wouldn’t let any such belief anywhere near it, never mind close enough to stick.
pain was simply itself. Howard couldn’t tell if the method of his torture was burning or freezing—whether boiling water was being poured through his ear into his brain or his teeth held clamped on a mouthful of ice—but either way it was torment. And it was paradoxical, being both random and malicious: nothing to do with him, yet personal. Perhaps he’d feel this way about being struck by lightning—aggrieved at being singled out to suffer an extreme of some inescapable but natural cruelty that was as pointless, in the end, as any chatter in his head about higher meanings for it.
He couldn’t go on lying there.
But when he tried to think about sitting up, he heard a thousand small voices firing disconcerting messages all around his body; back and forth they went through the circuitry of nerve and cartilage and muscle, checking, synchronizing, double-checking the effortful and blindingly complex work they were going to have to do to achieve the action of raising his torso from the floor. He lay listening to the
clamor and for a while nothing moved. Then, babbling its interior commands, very slowly his body performed the task of getting him to sit upright, for which, though the exertion made him nauseous, he felt grateful. He wondered what to do next. Stand up, obviously. But with his head pounding, instead he looked at his hands moving inconclusively in his lap and could not summon any certainty that they were his hands, or even hands at all so much as a pair of waving, clawlike objects, no more and no less than two weird objects among all other objects that were, had been, or ever would be in the world, present, past, or future. They existed. That was that. His control or ownership of them was a notion he no longer understood. In a universe newly revealed as transparent, indifferent, and timeless, they, along with any claim to be called anything as arbitrary as
, had lost all their Howardness, somehow.
Meanwhile, his head hurt. But as he went on staring Howard felt more of the boundaries between himself and the rest of the world dissolve, and soon he could not tell where the matter of his—or the—hands (or the wrists or arms or legs) ended, and the matter of the floor (or the roof, or the lately departed shafts of light shining through the holes in it) began. Even so, the part of Howard that couldn’t tell any of this was aware that it couldn’t, and was also aware that it seemed itself to be expanding and filling a space somewhere above the spot where the rest of him sat half off his yoga mat, unable to stand up and mesmerized by a pair of hands. It came to him again: everything in the universe, including himself, just
. Then he felt joy—ineffable, entire, surely the whole world’s joy—surging into him and swamping him, not unlike (if he only knew it) the tides of blood that were simultaneously flooding the interstices of his brain. It was a splendid agony, enough to knock him off his feet had he been on them; instead it pulled all the breath out of him in one long, surprisingly distressed and high-pitched squeal that he’d intended more as a song of praise. No matter—he was drowning in joy and pain, and oh, where was Deborah, whom at this moment he loved utterly and who ought, no,
to be with him and drowning, too?