An Extract from the novel Dog Mountain.
by Iain Maloney
The bar is Australian; Ayres Rock flanked by flags. A poster for Jacob’s Creek and another for Victoria Bitter. The staff are all Kiwis apart from one Japanese girl all tongue and cheek piercings. Most of the customers are English teachers. Honda likes it here because he can’t speak English, so he doesn’t get drawn into conversations, or have to put up with enforced eavesdropping on inane chatter. He describes it as drinking in the monkey house at the zoo: various decibels of screaming, alpha behaviour and shit-throwing, but nothing approaching conversation.
Honda is big. His dad wanted him to be sumo, fed him up and sent him to training. Honda had other ideas, and jumped trains. He lived rough in Sapporo for a bit before landing floor space in return for helping out a monk who lived in the mountains of Hokkaido. He’s still really into the meditation and the life – apart from the abstinence from alcohol. Although as he tells it, sake is a big part of a monk’s life. Most of his stories about that period end with the line ‘and then we got bombed on sake’.
When I come through the door I see him straight away, his bulk spread on a bar stool, chatting to Willie, the barman, who pours me Asahi. I pull my cigarettes from my inside pocket and tap one out the soft packet in a pure Hollywood move. Flick of Zippo and inhale, looking out over the flame and smoke at the rest of the revellers.
A pack of foreigners sit on stools around a high table beside the toilets. Willie is ignoring them and the empties are piling up. Some apes are swaying perceptibly, others laughing and clinking glasses, shouting kampai, making it clear that this is the only Japanese they know. Don’t even know enough to not say “chin-chin”.
I pull out my cell and check. Nothing. She’s not going to call. Maybe in a few days, but no time soon. I don’t know why I check; it’s set to vibrate and since I keep it in my front pocket I’m gonna know the second someone’s trying to reach me. I think about mailing Hitoshi, but there’s no point: he’ll turn up, or he won’t.
Rub some dirt from my knuckles. Honda asks me how I am. Up and down I answer, taking a big drink. Tell him, Hitoshi might be coming. I can’t read his expression, but he says nothing, which I take to mean he doesn’t have a problem with it. It’s a difficult one. Everyone knows Hitoshi, everyone likes him, but very few actually want to spend much time with him. He can be a bit of a liability, especially since every cop in Aichi knows his face and record by heart.
We chat for a bit, about nothing much. Baseball, computers, he saw Yuuji on the train this morning, muttering to himself and looking like a nutter. Once my phone buzzes and I jump to check it, but it’s spam from the phone company. Honda sees this and tells Willie to get two of those Polish things. I don’t know what he means, but something tall and purple is placed beside me. Once I’ve drunk half Honda tells me it’s entirely Polish vodka, apart from a few drops of redcurrant juice. I already suspected something like this; warm fuzzy feeling round my head.
Eventually, when we’ve exhausted everything we can think of that isn’t directly related to my problems, we start talking about the mud. The more I explain the more insane I sound. To just lose a day, wake up with me and my futon covered in mud, footprints on the balcony, four floors up.
He tells me not to worry, if it matters I’ll find out. Just forget about it. Easier said than done man.
Over Honda’s shoulder I see Hitoshi creep his way through the bar. He’s high. I mean real high. When he reaches a certain pot-saturation threshold he begins to move like Gollum, like half his body’s gone to sleep, or he’s had a stroke from the waist up. It’s bizarre to watch, and for some reason, when he reaches this state he simply has to move around. Most people would go white and pass out. Not Hitoshi. He’s Rambling Man and walks for hours, all bent out of shape and slow.
Halfway towards us his arm shoots out and latches, frog catching fly, onto a stool which he drags, screaming nails down a blackboard, across the floor. Sets it upright between me and Honda.
S’up he croaks. His eyes are bloodshot and there’s a piece of what looks like confetti stuck in his beard. Honda mouths beer at Willie. I ask Hitoshi what he’s been up to, though I think it’s pretty obvious. Not much he says, celebrating. Celebrating what I ask. Promotion. Fucking Nakata’s given him my job. Hitoshi looks at me like what? Doesn’t matter I say, just leave it.
We sit down at a table, chat about nothing for a while. Well Honda and I do, Hitoshi swims in his own world, surfacing occasionally to add something to a conversation finished ten minutes before. We let him have his say, then continue like nothing happened.
The night goes on, time passing. Hitoshi and I catch the last train home. Sitting at the front, looking up the dark track as we speed onwards.
So there’s this guy, Hitoshi begins. Middle-class kinda guy, tie and collar every day, series of pointless government jobs before getting a pretty high-powered job at the bank. Works there two years, bored out of his mind. Nothing much to do, so his brain ticks over and over. Works out he can skim one yen from an account every time an electronic transfer happens. No one misses one yen. If they even notice, it’s so small no one’s going to say anything. But one yen from every electronic transfer, in every account, very quickly mounts up to a shitload of yen. Got away with it for years then something goes wrong, he relaxes, doesn’t quite cover his tracks one time. Someone equally bored and with a curious mind follows the trail. So they catch him, bang him away. Big scandal, share prices drop, many accounts closed, the bank sued.
Sure, if you want. So he’s in jail, having a rough time, nice middle class boy, prime target for the nastier element. Decides it’s either death or escape, he has to get out. Figures he’ll try escaping first. Because of his education he gets the library job. Library is on the second floor, window in one of the storerooms opens onto a flat roof. He takes his time, is very careful. Attaches wires to bypass the window alarm, imbeds them in the plaster, paints over, leaves it a few months. No one notices. So one night he takes his chance. Squeezes through the little window, out onto the roof. Sneaks along, staying low, hidden in the shadows. At the end of the roof is a telephone cable stretching to the wall. He’s looked at it for months and reckons it’ll take his weight. He has gloves perfect for the job. Only problem is he’s standing on the roof of the guard room. He’s got to wait until the right moment, early hours when they’re tired and bored. So he waits. Eventually he thinks the time is right. Slips on his gloves. Edges over to the cable. But he hears a noise. A guard has come out to smoke. Right below him. He freezes. Waits. He’ll finish the cigarette and go back inside. No problem. He shifts his foot slightly, get more balanced. But his foot knocks something. He watches with horror as a perfect spiral of orange peel drops from the edge of the roof directly onto the guard’s head.
So he’s caught, hauled up to see the Bossman, chief warden or whatever. The guy who runs the prison. Doesn’t ball him out. Gives him the whole we’re very disappointed in you, thought you were better than this speech. Tells him he’s getting moved to maximum security, loses all privileges. Fine, he says. But tell me one thing. Why was there a perfect spiral of orange peel just there on the roof? Bossman looks shifty, doesn’t answer for a bit. This gets his curiosity even more. Eventually Bossman says, I’ll make a deal with you. You behave for the rest of your time here, and on your day of release I’ll tell you. He’s disappointed but what can he do. Okay, he says.
So the years pass. He behaves. Keeps to himself. Thinks about suicide every once in a while but always puts it off. As time goes on he becomes more obsessed by orange peel. He’d have been free if it wasn’t for that perfect spiral. He tries to pass it off as random bad luck, the peel picked out of garbage by a bird, dropped, and it was just coincidence that made it land where it did. But Bossman said he would tell him on his last day. That meant there was something to tell. And that meant it wasn’t random, not a coincidence. For years he went round and round in his head. It nearly drove him mad. He couldn’t even look at an orange without either getting angry or slipping into contemplation.
Eventually the day comes round. Bossman invites him to his office to say goodbye and don’t ever come back. So he asks about the orange peel. Bossman looks uncomfortable, like he’d hoped it’d been forgotten, but he’s a good man, keeps his word. He calls two guards and tells them to take him downstairs. They look surprised, are about to question him, but he repeats his order in a stern voice and they hop to it.
So he follows these two guards who whisper to each other, glancing back at him, but never speak to him directly. They go down some stairs. These stairs just keep going. They’re metal, like the fire escapes bolted to the back of buildings. He looks over the edge but can’t see any bottom. It makes him dizzy. They keep going down, and it’s slowly getting darker, the lights on the wall getting further and further apart. His legs hurt, especially his calf muscles, and his back’s jarring with every step. Once in a while he asks a question, but no one answers.
Finally, when he thinks his legs are going to seize and never work again, they hit bottom. He walks into the back of one of the guards. In front of them is a big vault door, the kind with the massive wheel in the middle, a big round door. At either side are two keypads. Each guard types in a long number, and at the same time, hit a green button. Echoing bangs as the locks pull back. They take hold of the wheel and, using all their strength, turn it and swing.
On the other side is a corridor. Narrow, it looks like a mine shaft – dirt floor, rock walls and roof, giant pieces of timber holding everything up. Along the ceiling are strip lights running as far as he can see. They are spaced far apart so that there’s a moment of blackness between each pool of light.
One of the guards nods at him, and they go through. They walk. And Walk. And walk. Every so often he spots cameras and breaks laser beams. No one could ever get down here without someone knowing. So what’s down here? Even the bank didn’t have security like this. What the hell had this place to do with the orange peel? How many people even knew that this place was here, under the prison?
So they reach the other end where they meet a metal door. In front of it is a computer terminal. One after the other, the guards place their thumbs into a small box attached to the computer. He’s told to do the same. He feels heat, then the door slides up.
They’re in an underground cavern. It must be miles across. There’s light coming from somewhere, but he can’t see the source. It reminds him of the Grand Canyon, except underground. To his right, about one hundred feet below him a wide river winds its way to the horizon.
What the hell? he asks the guards. They smile patronisingly, shake their heads and start walking. So he follows. The path they take slowly twists its way down the cliff face. Sometimes he slips on loose rock and is saved from falling only by grabbing onto grass and bushes that are at hand. The closer they get to the bottom, the clearer he can see the river. It looks wide and deep, and very fast-flowing.
His head is a mess. They’ve been walking for hours now so he is exhausted, and confusion is turning to fear. What if they’re taking him to this unreal place that no one knows about in order to kill him? But he keeps trudging on, not knowing what else to do. The guards won’t speak to him; sometimes ignoring his questions, sometimes laughing. He feels wretched. He wants to go back but knows he can’t. He has to follow the guards or he’ll definitely die here.
Finally they reach the river. Dragged up on the sand shore lies a canoe. They push it into the water before jumping in. He misses and falls in. The guards laugh like crazy. They don’t have to do much paddling since the current is so strong, merely steer now and again.
They drift for hours. Exhausted, he slips in and out of sleep. Every time he wakes they are further along the river but seem no nearer to any kind of destination, to any kind of answer. He gives up thinking, just lets his mind drift like the boat. His thoughts pass over his life, from the day he decided to take the job at the bank until here and now, floating in a canoe down an underground river in an underground world light by giant lamps. It is too much and he falls asleep again.
When he wakes the canoe is scraping along the rocks of the shore line. A rumble filled his ears. He jumps out with the guards and helps drag the canoe out of the water. About two hundred yards further downstream the air is full of spray and mist. A waterfall. They walk along the bank towards it. It is wide, perhaps forty or fifty feet, and so high he can’t see the bottom, just a white haze. The sound is deafening and horrifying. He steps back and keeps the guards where he can see them. Further out, about a hundred yards from the fall stands a giant pillar. It looks precarious despite its enormous size, like the water has been eroding all round it for millennia. It stands free of the rest of the land, solitary and isolated. One of the guards points, and he sees a thin rope bridge stretching out from this side of the river to the pillar.
He stares at the bridge. Then at the guard who nods. He shakes his head. The guard nods again. Finally he speaks.
If you want to know you have to cross the bridge.
He has no idea how he manages, but he sets off across. The bridge is much stronger than it looks, and only sways a little. The slats are solid and tight together so he can imagine he is walking on the ground. He keeps looking straight ahead. Soon he is over halfway and his grip on the ropes isn’t quite so tight. He can see that the pillar isn’t flat on top as he’d thought. There’s a mound in the centre, like an ancient burial site, with what looks like a doorway cut into the side. Curiosity overtakes him and he quickens his pace.
He looks back but the guards are nowhere in sight. This worries him, but he is so close to finding the answer, to solving the riddle, that he doesn’t care. He runs towards the opening and through, into the darkness.
Once inside he stops. The room is cold and damp. A musty smell hangs in the air. It’s almost pitch black, but off to the right comes a dull glow. Slowly, placing each foot carefully lest the ground disappear, he walks towards it. The closer he comes the more he can see. He’s in a passageway that curves round the inside wall of the mound. It’s marked by a low wall, about waist height, that seems to run in a complete circle. The light is coming from behind what looks like a natural rock wall reaching up to the roof and about seven metres wide, making a kind of alcove or recess from the main room. He feels the ground slope down under his feet as he nears the end. Suddenly he trips, falls forward onto his knees. He looks up and can see the source of the light. A six feet tall golden statue stands bathed in candle light. It is of Hindu style, an Indian goddess, one slender arm down by her side, palm facing out, thumb and index finger touching, the other three fingers splayed out. Her other arm is raised above her head, palm upwards. He looks with amazement and sees that in her raised hand, resting on the palm, is a perfect spiral of orange peel.
I stare at Hitoshi, who’s gone silent. Well? Well what? he says. What happened next? Nothing, he says. That’s it, the end. That’s not an end, I shout. It’s where the story stops he says, so it’s the end.
We lapse into silence. I try to fathom a point to his story but fail. A waste of time. A distraction. I look at the black trees, wet from an earlier shower, only half seeing them. My mind’s still wandering the underground cavern of the story. He can’t just leave it there, hanging. There are too many unanswered questions. I’ll get nothing more out of him. He’s probably forgotten it already.