LAT­I­TUDE SICK­NESS

Esquire (Philippines) - - NOTE & ESSAYS - SARGE LACUESTA

At Hawthorn­den, we have an ob­scene amount of time. So have the many oth­ers who have oc­cu­pied it. There are col­lec­tions of bird

eggs in the draw­ers and long pas­sages in the guest book.

BLOOD SPURTS AS SOON AS I COL­LAPSE ON MY CAS­TLE bed. It’s com­ing from my nose, but I’m aching all over. It must be all the trav­el­ing—there were two planes, two trains, a bus and a taxi. “Many a bat­tle was fought here,” my cab­bie said as we turned into the long drive­way that af­ter­noon.

It could also be from anger—the train ride cost as much as a do­mes­tic plane ride back home. There is also the draught that creeps un­der the door and the cold front it cre­ates as it meets the elec­tric wave from my bed­side heater. I’ve come pre­pared with Vicks and asthma in­halers and with what few hun­dred pounds I could gather in the loom­ing shadow of the fi­nan­cial cri­sis, but not for this.

Over our wel­come din­ner a few hours ear­lier, a fel­low res­i­dent called it “lat­i­tude sick­ness.” She is ob­vi­ously a failed, self-im­por­tant fic­tion­ist like I have warned my­self I would be. At din­ner I am also warned, by our ad­min­is­tra­tor and the cas­tle staff, about the bad­gers that are fond of roam­ing the cas­tle grounds. I cer­tainly know of the verb, and have seen the an­i­mal il­lus­trated and pho­tographed, but I have never en­coun­tered the real thing. I think they are too com­mon to be placed in zoos. “They can rip chucks of flesh right out of you,” Richard the ad­min an­nounces. Hav­ing al­ready lost a good amount of blood through my nose, I have de­cided to arm my­self. I will never roam the glen (again, some­thing I’ve seen il­lus­trated and pho­tographed many times, but here it is, al­most too much of it) with­out a walk­ing stick, with which to whip such crit­ters’ backs, and maybe a cam­era, with which I can cap­ture them in mid-flight, or God for­bid, mid-fight.

Rel­a­tive ob­scu­rity and its ex­is­tence in re­cent decades as a writ­ers’ re­treat has al­lowed Hawthorn­den Cas­tle to en­dure eight cen­turies. Here, in the mid­dle of Lass­wade, Scot­land, foxes throw growls to dis­tract us from their cubs’ paths, rab­bits flip-flop out of reach, midges sting and net­tles net­tle, and the river Esk, on a low churn, winds through an idle, semipop­u­lated wild. There’s no In­ter­net, no tele­vi­sion. On cer­tain days, a milky blue fog lays a ghostly haze on the win­dows and plunges us back into the dark ages. This is as close to how it was, we fig­ure, and it’s re­ally as close as I want to be.

But there are some morn­ings that are so clear that we see, in the dis­tance, draft horses graz­ing the backs of rape­seedyel­lowed hills, and it’s swell enough for me to shake my head over the fact that it was my writ­ing that brought me here. But there’s also the fact that up here, the far­thest I have been, I have only my writ­ing. I’ve left my busi­ness and my do­mes­tic is­sues, and with them, the kind of pres­sure that some­how al­lows me to think clearly: On week­days I have 14 hours to do busi­ness and two or three hours to worry about it. On odd days I squeeze in meet­ings at the Univer­sity Press, where I am a con­sul­tant. To save travel time from my Que­zon City

home, I sleep in my of­fice, un­der my desk, three nights a week. The bal­ance is left for writ­ing, or think­ing about what I wish I could write.

At Hawthorn­den, we have an ob­scene amount of time. So have the many oth­ers who have oc­cu­pied it. There are col­lec­tions of bird eggs in the draw­ers and long pas­sages in the guest book—Zadie Smith’s con­sists of sev­eral pages of long­hand (“She looked like she re­ally knew what she was do­ing,” one of the staff says). Upon their ad­vice a fel­low res­i­dent and I take a “wee walk” to his­toric Roslyn Chapel. Two hours later, at the end of a good wheezy trudge, and nurs­ing an un­fath­omable pain in my short legs, I find my­self look­ing for Knights Tem­plar and look­ing up at the Green Men.

From the top of the steel cage that keeps Roslyn Chapel well pre­served, we squint at the cas­tle, hidden by a fore­lock of for­est, cut­ting a fairy­tale fig­ure in the glen. Be­tween us, we share col­lege de­grees, a mas­ter’s in art his­tory, and a doc­tor­ate in literary crit­i­cism. My con­tri­bu­tion to this pool of knowl­edge is ex­actly one col­lege de­gree. But I am the one who rec­og­nizes that thought, com­ing slow and clear in the crisp air: “Hey, we can see our house from here!”

Night in, night out, we with­draw to the cas­tle’s draw­ing room, in the well-lit af­ter-hours of the Scot­tish spring, to un­wind from what is pre­sumed to be a whole day’s work, and dis­cuss the next day’s mis­sion, to be spent again in si­lence and over food qui­etly placed at our doors. The bad­ger­ing be­gins here, in the form of ma­chine-gun dis­cus­sions on every­body from Adorno and Ben­jamin to Sir Wal­ter Scott. Night in, night out, my body, un­kempt, over­weight, and un­der­e­d­u­cated, des­per­ately seeks some­thing to cling to. I re­mem­ber noth­ing from col­lege, and be­sides, it was a bi­ol­ogy de­gree. The only other de­grees I had were the third-de­gree in­ter­ro­ga­tions—to

bor­row a term from the Knights Tem­plar—I en­dured at the writ­ers’ work­shops I at­tended, where peo­ple an­nounced that my po­etry was “al­most pro­fes­sional.”

But as I said, I en­dured. Maybe it was in my genes. My fa­ther him­self had quit his job as an in­vest­ment banker to be­come a screen­writer. And in a writer’s lan­guage, to en­dure means to drop ev­ery­thing that makes prac­ti­cal sense in the world and stick to what you’re go­ing to die for, and of.

A week af­ter I quit med­i­cal school I found my­self work­ing at an ad­ver­tis­ing agency. That turned into a five-year stretch of work­ing for big multi­na­tional agen­cies. Dur­ing that pe­riod, while ev­ery­one was think­ing I was writ­ing copy, I typed out sto­ries on our group sec­re­tary’s com­puter and dili­gently sent out, via com­pany mes­sen­ger, to the Philip­pines Free Press and the Philip­pines Graphic. When­ever a story of mine was pub­lished, “my heart leapt” and I “danced for joy”—such was the ex­tent of my ela­tion, and of the bad writ­ing I sus­pected my­self to have writ­ten. I thought it was just pun­ish­ment for all the sub­tle whor­ing I had been do­ing at my day job (“How does it feel to be sell­ing your soul?” a poet once asked me. I had no come­back.)

At Hawthorn­den I feel like I am be­ing pun­ished by hav­ing noth­ing to write. Our medieval work sched­ule is, weirdly, full of dis­trac­tions. There’s Bonny Rigg, a town I love for its quiet and quaint­ness, and the fact that it is ten min­utes closer to Ed­in­burgh. I also like to spend a lot of time in the Bonny Rigg li­brary, where my visit to the In­ter­net ter­mi­nal al­ways co­in­cides with the ses­sion of a boy with Down syn­drome. He reads aloud slowly as he types—I’m too po­lite to fig­ure out to whom—and leaves the li­brary when he’s done send­ing out the e-mail. I’m not too po­lite, how­ever, to fol­low him out the li­brary one day, and I am sur­prised to see him walk­ing the street un­ac­com­pa­nied and catch the bus to Ed­in­burgh.

The Scot­tish cap­i­tal is 30 min­utes away by the num­ber 39 and the num­ber 77. In the cen­ter of Ed­in­burgh, a col­umn of cold air keeps Princes Street in icy tem­per and I walk down to the Royal Mile in gusts of ragged, vis­i­ble breath.

There is also a secret day trip to Glas­gow, squeezed be­tween the com­mu­nal break­fast and din­ner. Scot­land’s largest city is an hour away by train, and in the econ­omy car I find my­self with a crowd of Scot­tish foot­ball fans and their Ger­man coun­ter­parts.

In Glas­gow I am met at the Queen Street sta­tion by a nov­el­ist friend, a Glas­gow na­tive. When I called him ear­lier from Ed­in­burgh he as­sured me, “Don’t worry, I’ll find you.”

He takes me for cof­fee at the Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Art, af­ter we tour its gal­leries and of­fices. In one gallery a man­nequin dressed up like a mummy is ly­ing on the floor, emit­ting moans and groans from a speaker in its chest. Over cof­fee, my friend proudly shows me a Greek trans­la­tion of his book and asks me about the progress of my new­est col­lec­tion. No, noth­ing to re­port, I tell him. I find my­self warm­ing to the thought of re­turn­ing to the cas­tle, with its rustling treetops, its caw­ing crows, its nest of writ­ers. Our com­mu­nal din­ner is wait­ing.

On the train back to Ed­in­burgh I find my­self in the mid­dle of the ten­sion af­ter the foot­ball match. Al­co­hol is pro­hib­ited on trains but as soon as the doors close all bets are off. I don’t know who won, but I cer­tainly am aware who has the most chances of los­ing some­thing. My only de­fense is to hide be­hind the cov­ers of a book I have just bought—Ben­jamin’s Il­lu­mi­na­tions. I read it as if my life de­pended on it.

I get to the cas­tle hours af­ter din­ner. But I feel alive and en­er­getic and un­will­ing to re­turn. I re­mem­ber the sheet of pa­per in the drawer, de­scrib­ing two scenic walks around the cas­tle. They call them the Cas­tle Walk and the Lady Walk. The choice is clear. I con­sider my­self ad­ven­tur­ous but I am also a re­al­ist—that’s why I have a day job.

The Lady Walk be­gins with a dip off the side of the Cas­tle and con­tin­ues on a wind­ing path past caves, along­side streams, un­der fallen tim­ber, and through un­fa­mil­iar veg­e­ta­tion. The land­scape is in­cred­i­ble and the air is full of the sounds of leaves and wildlife and the smell of veg­e­ta­tion and pollen.

My breaths are deep­ened by the long strides and the con­tem­pla­tive sighs, but as my lungs draw in the pol­len­rich air, within min­utes it ceases to be a walk and be­comes a hike for hu­man­ity. I turn into a hack­ing, gasp­ing crea­ture, crawl­ing on my el­bows and knees. I have no cam­era, no walk­ing stick. I’ve left my in­haler in my room.

As I lie lan­guish­ing, I can hear cars and trucks speed on the high­way less than a hun­dred me­ters away, just over the glen. Not far away are my room and its siege of quiet, just be­hind the door painted with a long list of writ­ers’ names to which mine would be added, liv­ing or dead.

Sarge Lacuesta

Writer, ed­i­tor-at-large at Esquire Philip­pines

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