I. (The River)
I am alone on a small crowded boat. Alone amongst couples and friends on winter holiday; alone amongst the taciturn crew. I am not on holiday. I came here for a different reason, to this festival of fire and darkness. I came here to be alone. But a shark shadow chased my plane across the ocean and swallowed me whole as we touched down, and now I am alone inside a darkness that is so much darker than I bargained for.
The boat offers no shelter as we thunder down the river. I shrink in my cheap, ugly jacket that I bought for this occasion. Bought for a climate harsher than my home; bought for the warmth that it thankfully provides. I wish I had splurged on something more fashionable – something less boxy and not such a vanishing shade of black. I wish I had packed a brighter hat.
Already the boat is slowing; its roar sinks to a rumble. Soon the engine cuts out and leaves a ringing, lapping silence. We are nowhere in particular. We are near a bridge. The crew members hand out headphones and motion us to move port and starboard. We face the water, standing shoulder to shoulder, and we wait.
I press play when I am told, and a woman begins to speak. About a body tumbling into darkness: my body. Falling, sinking, drowning. Here, now. Minutes pass. Hours, days. I am caught by currents, waterborne through cycles of decomposition. Down the river, up the river; a ceaseless tide that denies burial. The woman’s voice leaks from the headphones of the strangers on either side of me, each recording just slightly out of sync with my own. Muscles, organs, clothing, skin. Tendons, bone, millennia, beach sand. The sun sets a glittering path across the river, to the exact spot where I am standing. We drift in the dying winter light.
II. (The Drones)
I am alone in an old stone building on a hill. Alone amongst seven guitars communing with seven amplifiers; alone amidst a scattering of strangers slumped down in sagging bean bags, sinking into darkness and dense feedback.
On a makeshift stage in this once-grand hall a man moves between the instruments, making intuitive adjustments and strange medicine. Two guitars stand upright on their own in front of their respective amps, held by forces that none of us can see but all of us can feel.
One night I got four guitars standing all at once, the medicine man told me this morning, in a chance encounter on the ferry. A mighty marine engine rumbled far below us, and deep within our bones.
I don’t know what would happen if I ever got all seven, he continued. Maybe the skies would open up and take me. Or have something to say. But maybe they only have one thing to say – that this is possible.
He said people hear all kinds of things inside the droning sound field that he makes, with the guitars he spent a decade looking after for Lou Reed. He said that when Lou first stood inside the soundscape he felt healed. Although of course he wasn’t. I am patient despite the numbing cold, and in time the drones begin to give up patterns, voices, songs. Something is happening in there; in here.
Everything matters, he said. Everything influences the harmonics of the drones. The movement of bodies; the temperature in the room; the tension on the strings. In the blackened fireplace a disco ball revolves slowly, sending spirals of light around the room.
III. (The Dark Side of the Moon)
I am alone in a stark white room, lying on a hard, narrow bed. Alone with the technicians trying to clamp my head down at exactly the right angle; alone with the machine that will shoot me through with radiation every day for the next month. Twenty-eight days, to be precise, not including weekends.
By the end of the week I will have mastered the art of wriggling into a rigid mesh mould as it is lowered onto me, so that the planes of my body marry the contours of the mask when it is clamped into place. Left shoulder up a fraction, right shoulder down and flattened, lift the chin a millimetre, exhale and relax. Snap, snap, snap, snap, snap. Immobilised from heart to crown.
But on this first day the pressure of the restraint is shocking, and the claustrophobia of it takes my breath away. By day four my brain will have accepted that I can still inhale and exhale when the final clamp snaps into place, and by day five I will no longer pop a Valium when I’m summoned from the waiting room. Today, though, I have no idea what I am doing, and I have no idea that I have no idea what I am doing. The staff in the control room spend 20 minutes trying to get my X-rays to line up before I finally twitch the panic bell.
A technician is out of the booth and by my side with a speed that is both reassuring and alarming. It hurts so much, I tell her. I can’t do this. She unlatches the mask – one, two, three, four, five – and I nearly cry with relief when I am free. We realise that I wasn’t situated properly, and so we begin the experiments and adjustments that will become a daily choreography. When we finally get it right I do cry, with a relief that is bruised by other, darker feelings.
The technician retreats and I am alone again, in the bright white room on the hard, narrow platform. Alone with the old and strangely comforting music that I have chosen for today’s session; alone with the little bell clasped gently in my hand. I close my eyes, and we begin.