In 1997 Garry Kasparov - the world chess champion since 1985 - played the IBM computer “Deep Blue”. Kasparov was a genius, and used to the complex mind games of international chess. In the second of six games, the computer made a move. A human move. A move Kasparov was unable to rationalise. Despite holding winning positions, Kasparov lost the match. He was never the same again. Soon, he lost the world title and was unable to regain it. Sometimes our mind is more fragile than we know, more brittle than we can bear. This story is not about Kasparov, it is about someone like us…..
It’s a black, cold fear that feels like liquid in his throat. It’s the fear that has him crying in the night. As he sits upright, he can still feel it snaking its way down to his stomach, ebbing backwards. It’s a stinging, unknowable fear that never quite shows its face. Part of him wants to confront it, chase it out of his life forever. But the looming, brooding, malevolent mass it brings to him - that makes him think twice. He believes that he already knows what it is, but can’t bear to try understanding it.
Tonight is like so many other nights. Almost three thousand, since he walked out of a door in west London. He’s standing by the stove, gently stirring a pan of milk. His mind is partly there, partly elsewhere. His eyes are darting from point to point in the kitchen. Never still - a waking R.E.M. His face itches, and he has to resist the temptation to scratch it until it bleeds.
Outside is total darkness. Not just the darkness of night, but the absence of light. His is the only light of any kind for four miles, except for the lighthouse. From his bedroom he can see the arc of light sweeping across the bay, a piercing crescent racing across the sea. But other than that, nothing at all until Kilkadie.
The milk has boiled over and he removes it from the hob with a curse. He pours it into the mug with shaking hands. They are coarse and calloused. They are seemingly hewn from something bigger, something of rough strength.
The lights flicker momentarily, and he wonders whether he will need to go out to the generator and kick it again, like he did last night. It sits in a small outhouse next to the cottage, and allows him to keep in touch with modern life. Or, at least, as in touch as he wants to be. No mobile phones out here, thank Christ. No telephone or television. He has a radio, though.
He sees the rain lashing against the window as he sits in the armchair. Some weeks, it seems to never stop raining, but he doesn’t mind. He can sit in the cottage for a week without a problem. The rain rips across the last of the headland, chased in from Northern Ireland by endless westerlies, gathering fury and pace until it smashes itself against the rough walls of the house.
The living room is small and, to most tastes, merely functional. His armchair sits next to the open fire, which he must always keep at least simmering with hot ashes. It heats the whole house. A stack of logs leans against one of four bookcases that form the bulk of the room’s furniture. No paintings on the rough-cast wall, and no photographs on the mantle. This house is just a receptacle for its owner. It is not owned by him, not in any emotional sense. It was here for two hundred years before he arrived, and it expects to be here after he’s gone. Which, given his life thus far, shouldn’t be very long.
There is one other chair, a wide armchair like his own, covered in a coarse throw. No one has ever sat in it, not since he’s been here. It’s a ghost chair. He can’t make up his mind if he wishes someone would visit, to cut through the tight wrapping of loneliness that chokes him on some winter days. Or whether he’s glad no-one ever comes, either because he doesn’t want even the mildest of intrusions, or simply couldn’t cope with one.
He sits in the armchair drinking his warm milk, unable to sleep.
How old do you think he is? Look at him. Look really closely. His skin has been coarsened by exposure to the wind and the gale-driven rain. His face is in constant motion, like an old man. A succession of ticks, twitches, involuntary movements, and lip-licking, to drive a portrait artist crazy. A face constantly saying something, but betraying nothing. Maddening to try to understand a face like that. Better just to accept that it doesn’t tell you anything, and move on.
His body is hidden by several layers of warm, practical clothing. He’s short and wiry without being whisp-thin. You might get a sense of a boxer gone to seed – a formerly razor-sharp set of reflexes dulled by lack of use. A latent strength and brutality that might - or might not – be there. You might be right about that. Like his face, his body is constantly twitching. Always making little adjustments, in a controlled environment that offers no threat, a man never at peace.
The warm milk is finished. He just sits there, his eyes straining in the middle distance, as if he expects the harsh wind to speak to him. As if he’s reaching for a voice that will never come. Sleep will creep up on him slowly. It will take all night. He won’t let it suffocate him until morning, until daylight. He can’t bear to fall asleep in the dark.
He can sense a wave of drowsiness creeping up on him. It’s an animal’s instinct he has, honed by training but instilled before birth. His father lived his whole life on wits, and on booze. So it was a genetic programme that he took, and refined. He can stem the need to sleep just through a power of will. Twenty four hours, forty eight, seventy two. It makes no odds to him.
All the same, he feels the need to have the radio on. He gets a certain reassurance from the clipped British tones of the BBC World Service. He feels somehow aligned with ex-patriots, anglophiles, insomniacs and the just plain bored, when he tunes in. There’s a little of all of them in him, anyway.
His shaking fingers turn the radio on, but as he withdraws his hand, he inadvertently clips the tuning dial, and the radio wanders off-station. Instead, there is a cacophony of high-pitched whines, searing white noise and static. He wants it to stop, but instead of re-tuning he simply sits there with his hands covering his ears. Like a small child trying to prevent something by shutting off a view of it, and denying everything with all his strength. His eyes are clamped shut, his face somehow folded in on itself, and he rocks forward and backwards slowly, in his little isolated cottage.
The white noise offends him, hits him, and hurts him. It stings him on the inside. For reasons he’s avoided thinking about, the mindless static is, in every sense, his song. Confused, dazed, ripped to shreds inside and permanently damaged, incapable of repair, and beyond any good use. It sounds like the noise in his head, from years ago. To other ears, it just sounds like the wind slamming against the cottage. But to him it’s different. The wind is nature. The wind is the sound of nature taking its course – nothing more, nothing less. It’s a sound borne of the world doing what it should.
Whereas white noise is simply the sound of total human madness.
It takes a good ten minutes before he can reach for the tuner and attempt to get the station back. It should be easy. He’s only knocked the dial slightly. But he’s confused and panicky, and he turns it the wrong way. The tuner slides into the upper reaches of the spectrum, away from the safety of his programme. He realises his mistake and he’s about to tune the other way, when he hears it - a human voice.
He can’t decide what the voice is saying. It’s an old radio, and he moves his ear closer to the speaker to try to make it out. It’s mixed in with a high-pitched whine, but he hears it again.
A woman’s voice.
“Fucking do it, finish him off.”
His eyes widen, and he moves closer. His logical mind tells him that there are no radio stations on this frequency, that he must be intercepting some other broadcast. It happened occasionally, an accident of his cliff-side location and freak atmospherics. Paramedic conversations, police reports, low-scale private air traffic, but nothing like this.
The rest of his mind runs riot and explodes away into a thousand different scenarios. He strains to hear some more. There’s silence, then a crackle, then a silence. Then a different voice, a man’s voice.
“It’s done. It’s over. I can see a light over there.”
And more silence.
And more silence.
And suddenly, like a wave breaching a sea wall, his panic escapes, and takes over. He jumps up and stumbles out to the generator, kicking his way through the kitchen and through the squeaky, creaking wooden door. His senses are reeling, and his balance is poor. He pinballs towards the generator, almost diving at the switch and cutting the power off. The generator dies slowly, spluttering almost reluctantly to a halt.
He stands in the now-dark outhouse. The blackness is total. There’s no borrowed light to seep into the darkness here. His eyes have nothing to reach for, to adjust to. As a child, he was terrified by the dark, but now it gives comfort. He stands listening to his own breathing, above the waves of gale-driven water that continue to lash the cottage. He can hear himself calming a little, easing back to a more even rhythm and gaining a measure of self-control.
He reaches out his hands like a blind man. Once he’s found the frame of the door, he gains confidence, and grabs his way down the wall and back into the kitchen. He puts his foot out ahead of him and gives a wide sweep, conscious that he’s left items on the floor. A bucket is sent spinning, and it makes him jump. He becomes aware of how agitated he is, how such little things send a frisson of fear up his spine.
At the far end of the kitchen, he looks out of the window. He’s afraid to go too near the glass, in case someone – somehow – leaps into his vision. He has no idea where that fear comes from, but it’s there, and it’s very real. The dying embers of the fire in the living room give a feeble glow, so as he enters the room he’s able to define shapes and outlines. He gingerly settles back into his armchair.
It’s a good four hours until dawn. His fingers grip the arms of the chair, and he tries to focus on slowing his breathing. But it doesn’t really slow down. His mind is dragging it along at breakneck speed. He realises the radio is still on, he can see the light on the dial. But there’s still silence. He considers switching it off, but decides against it.
He tries to distract his thoughts, but they drift back to the radio, and to the voices. He attempts to rationalise it, to bring to mind a harmless explanation. A radio play, drifting in on strange atmospherics. The silence caused by a shift in air pressure. Just a hidden snatch of a benign entertainment, twisted by his paralysed brain into something else. He’d come, after all, to one of the most peaceful places on earth. He’d chosen it for that peace, that isolation. The chances of anything happening here were….
And yet, he can’t shift the underlying tension he now feels. In part, it is the brutal lack of compassion in the woman’s voice. Echoes of a time he’s trying to forget. It is an intrusion, a time rip from the past that had forced its way into his present. He resents it for intruding into the narrow, claustrophobic, deliberately lonely world he’s created, a world that he controls. The intrusion could have been almost anything and he would have resented it.
But no, he reasons, there was more to it than that. A mere intrusion would have been resented. But this is different. This is fear, an abject, groundless, nameless fear. He realises that the very things he’s done to make himself feel safe, now make him scared. There’s no telephone here. No way of contacting anyone, except to walk – or run, or stumble, or flee – the three miles along the cliff track to Kilcadie. In the darkness, it was almost impossible. Oh, he has torches, but would he be in a position to take one? And if not, who would come? Who would find his body? Maybe, after two or three weeks, the owner of the general store would notice he hadn’t been in. Maybe, after a while, someone would wander over – if the weather was okay – to check him.
But would they? And why would they? He is assuming there was a well of basic human concern out there. He’s made no attempt to come to know anyone in town. He grunts, he nods, and he says the bare minimum. Shutting himself off has been deliberate. But now, he is reaping what he’s sowed.
He looks around the living room for weapons against any intruder. The poker falls to hand. He shuffles the dying embers of the fire, just to feel the meaty weight of the poker in his grip. It makes him feel better, stronger, but only temporarily. Before long, the agitated breaths start again, and his free hand is biting into the fabric of the chair. He shivers for no apparent reason, and tells himself it’s the cold. But there’s a problem here. He could start the fire up again for warmth, but that would produce a light, a glow that, in the absence of any other light, could be seen from miles away.
Seen? By who?
Who are they?
The people on the radio.
But they’re miles away, in a studio.
Are they? Says who? Remember what they said? I can see a light over there. That was before I kicked the generator out.
You’re getting stupid. Getting crazy.
He can hear the ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece, but it’s too dark to make out the time. As he listens, his mind starts to think that the ticking is getting slower, that time is dragging to a halt and then, somehow, almost rewinding. Just to make sure this night won’t end.
Staring at the embers of the fire makes him drowsy. He starts to nod forward. He’s just about to slide into sleep when the radio makes another noise. Untouched, it sparks back into life with a high pitched whine that prompts his scream as he reawakens. He’s briefly disoriented by the darkness and the noise. His fingers curl around the poker and he raises it, threatening only the darkness and the wind. He looks at the radio as it spews a human voice once again.
“Just a bit further up the hill.”
And then silence again.
And more silence.
He continues to stare at the radio, as if he can will it to speak again. The human voice had been female. It sounded tired, strained, fatigued in some way.
As if she’s walking up a hill. Walking towards a cottage. Walking towards where they saw the light.
He creeps towards the window, almost on all fours. He cowers below the level of the window, and then peeps out into the night. The poker scrapes on the wooden floor. He looks towards the Irish coast, hoping to see the distant glow of the towns across the bay. Because what he wants now, is human contact. He wants to feel that someone will protect him, will come for him. But he knows there is no such person. He knows in his heart that won’t happen.
He sinks into his chair again. He feels exhausted, drained. He feels weak. He feels now that whatever happens, happens. He feels he has no control over it. All the effort he’s made to control his life, his environment, has come to nothing. He’s totally alone, and practically defenceless. Just a lonely old man, in a lonely old cottage, waiting for fate to dispose of him.
But as he sits, he thinks some more. He thinks how stupid he’s been, to be afraid of a radio. How unlikely it is that anyone will stumble through miles of darkness, on a bleak Scottish cliff, in the pouring rain, to reach his cottage. If the villagers never bother to come out here, even on a bright summer day, why the hell would anyone else? He is too poor to rob. He is too dull to seek out. No one on earth, save him, has any reason for being out here at all.
He’s allowed himself to drift into this state of mind, he decides. It’s been self-inflicted. He’s withdrawn from the world and, in doing so, lost his sense of perspective. He’s become too insular and overly self-sufficient. It’s time to change that. It’s time to stop living in the past, time to stop her from winning by making him a prisoner. She wouldn’t win. Tomorrow, he’d go into town, and start to meet people. Join the library, have a drink in the pub, whatever. Just something to start engaging with the world again.
He feels better for this decision. He feels a rising confidence that everything will be okay. He even feels that this little scare has been good for him. He feels that it’s jolted him out of the rut, and given him a reason to make some changes.
And that’s when he hears it.
A loud knock at the door.