To The Lighthouse
Nero was booked onto the 3.15 ferry from Ardrossan to Brodick. In order to allow plenty of time, he arrived at Muriel’s house a little after 6.30am; fishing the van keys out of the exhaust pipe when he arrived, where Kevin had left them to save being rudely disturbed at such an early hour. Ahead of him were near enough four-hundred miles and eight hours of driving. As he started the ignition, Negative Creep by Nirvana blasted out of the booming, rattly door speakers.
With the first fill up of diesel on the way to the M40, Nero bought what he predicted would be sufficient chocolate and crisps to last him for the trip. Just over an hour into the journey and he was already bored by the monotony and dulled by the drone of the engine. By now he’d worked his way through several of Kevin’s CDs, which were chaotically stuffed into the door pockets, the glove box, and strewn over the passenger seats. As the rush-hour traffic started to build towards Birmingham – something he’d neglected to factor into his calculations – an Arctic Monkeys disk ended and the multi-changer mechanism clunked and ticked until the rousing and appropriately motorik beat that ushers in Deep Purple’s Highway Star filled the cab. To fend off the fatigue among clogging and clearing motorway traffic towards Stoke, he spent the best part of the next two hours continually switching lanes to find the shortest queue before he could put his foot down properly. The fuel gauge leaned left as a newly unleashed Nero pushed past the speed limit.
For the most part, the sky was pearly grey and the wipers intermittently swept accumulated spray from the windscreen until the clouds cleared and the sun poked through for a few welcome minutes as the M6 crossed the Manchester Ship Canal near Warrington. The sat-nav was still giving an estimated arrival time a little too tight for comfort for catching the ferry, so Nero pressed on in the outside lane. The traffic thinned out once past Preston, so he was able to keep a good consistent speed through the rolling moorland and glowering overcast skies of the Lakeland hills towards the border. He smiled as he passed the sign for Penrith, recalling the tearoom scene from Withnail and I and promising himself a visit there on the way back.
By Carlisle, the van needed more diesel and he too needed a pit-stop, so pulled in at Gretna services. Turning the engine off, Nero luxuriated in the comparative silence; only the distant hum of the busy road was audible together with the sudden belching roar of a departing artic. It was a little after midday and The Tom Tom was allowing him breathing space for a bite to eat in the café. While he deliberated between croissants or soup with a toastie to go with his mug of tea, Nero heard a fair smattering of Scottish accents around him. Even though his late father’s roots were north of the border, he all at once felt foreign.
Being a damp Tuesday in early November, there was no-one in there who resembled a tourist; for the most part he found himself among sales reps glued to their mobiles, and weary commercial drivers – together with a smattering of well-insulated pensioners – all either staring into the middle distance, or vacantly out into the car park as they stirred cups and munched on their meals. Fifteen minutes later, with hunger now held at bay, and the comparative comfort of the red vinyl seat starting to lull him into drowsiness, Nero felt compelled to get back on the road.
True to Kevin’s assertion, the old green Transit was holding together fine so far. The oil and water temperatures were normal and there were no worrying mechanical sounds to trouble him. Progress was fast along the M74, with little traffic and enough time to cast his gaze over the flat countryside that surrounded the motorway. A few miles later, Nero glimpsed the blue A-road for Ayr sign between nose-to-tail high sided trucks. He felt a sense of relief that his destination now seemed within grasp.
With no cars for company, the van made unimpeded progress west through mostly open and undulating heath land, with just the occasional ribbon of silver birch lining the road, or a copse of conifers further off. The B-road gradually yielded a more pastoral landscape, with hedges, cattle and clusters of farm buildings. Now ahead of schedule, Nero was able to relax and enjoy the remaining few miles to the coast.
On arriving at the Ardrossan ferry terminal, he was somewhat disappointed to see that it didn’t really conform to his romanticised expectations: approaching it, a brash and pristine Asda supermarket sat discordantly amongst a belt of tired houses and boarded up businesses adjacent to scruffy, post-industrial scrub land.
A few vehicles were already backing up from the marshalling area towards the terminal building. Nero joined the queue. To his left, beyond the harbour wall, he could see the brooding and craggy outline of Arran stretching along the hazy horizon. Climbing out of the van to stretch his legs, he experienced a pleasant feeling of anticipation now the island was so close. There hadn’t been time before the trip to find out what to expect there; it would all be new to him. Nero breathed in the fresh sea air and walked between twenty or so yachts parked and perched in dry dock, listening to the cry of seagulls combined with the hollow and metallic chorus of rattling rigging against a spinney of masts in the wind.
Around half an hour later, the CalMac ferry was under way, and with the van parked in the car deck Nero tagged along with the other passengers up towards the cafeteria and observation lounge. A sudden squall put off all but the most intrepid and kagoul-cloaked from exploring the deck, so most of his travelling companions stayed warm and dry inside for the hour’s trip, each taking turns to peer through the large windows towards the incrementally approaching island. The highest hill, Goatfell, by turn loomed and receded: ethereal drapes of cloud shrouding and unfolding, melting and condensing in slow motion around the conical peak.
Returning to the lounge area following a perusal of shortbreads and over-priced tat in the shop, Nero peered out once again and noticed that Brodick was now very close. The rain had now eased to a fine drizzle so he ventured outside. It seemed faintly improbable to be approaching a town at rooftop height; the ferry being taller than any building he could see on shore. The engines thrummed as the ship pulled round and prepared to dock. He thought what a perfect place it was to escape to. For now, Dixey was just a distant dot. “Remote” felt good.
Nero negotiated the Transit out of the ferry and along the narrow jetty to the shore. Reunited relatives hugged one another at the terminal as the snake of vehicles crept slowly and deliberately past the empty coaches and ruck-sacked ramblers that lined the route towards the tiny capital.
Malcolm Flannery lived on the south coast of the island in a disused lighthouse, so it couldn’t really have been a much easier landmark for Nero to find; his sat-nav redundant for once, faced with remarkably few road options. As he arrived at the towering bygone beacon, yet another ominous dark cloud swept in from the sea and hastily emptied its contents around him. The wipers beat frenetically as he leaned towards the windscreen, focusing intently on the road and looking to see where he should park. A figure clutching a violently twitching umbrella against persistent gusts rushed out from the door of a long, white, flat-roofed rectangle of a building adjoining the lighthouse. Nero hurriedly opened the driver’s door, readying himself for a dash to the dry.
“What a day! You must be Nero, yes?”
Nero stretched out a hand of greeting. “And you must be Mal. Hi... is it always like this?”
“Uncompromising, yeah! Come on inside before you get soaked.”
Mal looked to be aged around thirty and presented himself as confident and open in his manner. Nero had anticipated the therapist to be more unconventional, perhaps resembling the commonly imagined appearance of a stage hypnotist or even some kind of weird beard from the sixties. Instead, he was clean shaven, short haired and dressed in the kind of nondescript Gap-style casuals favoured by someone working in IT or pursuing an exciting career path in architecture; the sort of chap you might meet down the local gastro pub. One of Alain’s emails had mentioned how Mal had followed in the Frenchman’s footsteps to the forests of equatorial Africa, discovering for himself the rituals surrounding the use of the iboga plant. Over their meal that evening, Mal explained more about what the ibogabeta therapy entailed, then began to reveal what led up to him getting involved in the treatment himself.
“Well, these days, if I admit to most people what I used to do for a living I’d get more respect if I’d been a traffic warden or an estate agent.”
“No, don’t tell me... go on, not a banker?”
“Well, pretty much. I was in derivatives for the last couple of years, before the ‘readjustment’, shall we say.”
Nero concluded that plentiful funds must have come Flannery’s way for him to furnish the place as it was, rigged out with sophisticated dark woods, designer utensils and swish, open-plan living areas.
“So, a bit of a flash lifestyle, yeah?”
“Certainly; without a doubt, I’ll admit it was a great job at first...”
“What, with all the Porsches and coke parties?”
“Well, not quite. I mean, I dipped my toe into some of that, it did go on, but at these type of firms you’re in with a very smart, driven crowd; you know, the usual work hard, play hard thing.”
“So you managed to get out in time?”
Mal opened his arms expansively and looked around the room. “I know I’ve got all of this, but I left with a hell of a lot less than most of my colleagues back there.”
“I don’t really understand much of it, but wasn’t it all bound to go tits-up in the end, with all that greed about?”
Mal looked a touch embarrassed but maintained a somewhat amused and upbeat tone as he continued to clarify matters.
“A few companies were somewhat over-leveraged and, what shall I say, excessively ‘exuberant’ in their expectations of continued growth. Anyway, getting back to what I was saying, it was all eating me up, and the stress was seriously starting to build. I knew I had to plan for a way out somehow, so I hunkered down and held back on my spending: offloaded the flash car and moved into a much cheaper flat back home in Oxford, and did my best to avoid the after work get-togethers. I reckoned two-million would be enough to start again, to get out of the rat race.”
“So it got you this place, then?”
“Needed nothing like that much as it turned out. The place was cheaper than you’d think – comparatively anyway. In the end I came away with a lot less than a million by the time I had my breakdown. I mean, I’m not going to plead poverty, I’ve got a comfortable life here and the money has meant I could do the place up a bit and, you know, do my own thing to some degree. Meeting Alain really was the catalyst for me. Knowing him too, I expect you understand a little of what I’m getting at?”
“Well, just for one session. I know I was probably a bit short with him as well, what with only just coming down from it all – you know, after my own... breakdown,” hesitated Nero, still getting used to facing up to reality of his recent illness.
“He’s a perceptive and patient man. I ended up seeing him for several months. When Alain got me onto the ibogabeta therapy, he really helped identify where I’d been going wrong: the whole self-centred course I’d been on. Helped me towards what I’ve ended up doing now. Did you know it was him – well, him and his chemist friend – who developed the ibogabeta therapy to what it is now; refined it from the basic root used in the Bwiti ceremonies?”
“I read a bit about it online, yeah. You’re sure that this drug won’t fry my brain; you know, like with acid and stuff? You hear stories...”
“Sure, I can understand your concerns, but in my experience so far – and it must have been near on fifty people now I’ve assisted – none of them has had their brain ’fried’ as you put it. It’s not quite the same kind of thing as LSD, DMT or the psilocybin you get in magic mushrooms. I mean, on some levels the experiences can be similar to other psychoactives, but ibogabeta should really only be a one-off treatment, not recreational like most of the others. Part of what I do is to assess whether I think the subject is suited to the therapy or not. So, if before we started it I thought you weren’t in the right frame of mind, or whatever, we wouldn’t proceed any further. I hope you can trust me.”
“I know. I’m sorry. It’s just for peace of mind really. Someone slipped me something psychedelic once when I was younger.”
Nero didn’t get much sleep that night: a combination of taking no Diazepam (requested by Mal to avoid side-effects) and anxiety over the experience he was about to face.
The next day, November the 5th, he was expecting more than fireworks. Nero took no breakfast. Mal escorted him from his luxuriously minimalist living quarters and through the door at the foot of the lighthouse, all the time attempting to reassure him and helping him to remain calm.
Brittle echoes bounced off the walls as they climbed the cool, white, narrow spiral stairway up to one of the rooms the old keepers used as living quarters decades before. Replacing the sparse surroundings which would have greeted employees of the Northern Lighthouse Board, the cramped space was instead furnished with a buttoned brown leather chaise longue, a matching armchair and an expensive-looking coffee table constructed from polished driftwood. Mal suggested Nero lie down and try to relax. In the meantime he played ambient music on the stereo.
“When you feel ready, just take two of the tablets with some water; they’re in the blister pack on the table. There’s no need to feel hurried. There again, if you prefer, leave it several hours if you like; until you feel it’s right – or not at all if you choose to change your mind. It isn’t too late.”
Nero appeared tense but determined as he listened to Flannery. “No, it’s OK, I’m ready; now’s as good a time as any.”
“Good. Before it begins to take effect I want you to concentrate on what you are seeking from the experience.”
If Nero had been taking iboga root as part of a Bwiti ceremony in central Africa, many of the visions he was about to encounter would need to remain secret, for they were seen as a sacred connection to the spiritual realm. Such concealment would not be required of Nero there on Arran. Compared with the lengthy and supportive communal experience he might have experienced in the Gabon, this would be a somewhat contrived and abridged affair, but just as powerful.
Over the space of the next half an hour, Flannery noticed how Nero’s breathing had become laboured and that his pupils were now dilated. He spoke in a quiet and unmodulated voice to relax his initiate. Nero gradually surrendered his grip on the here and now; from time to time instinctively checking his pulse at the wrist and shifting awkwardly as intermittent surges of panic overtook him. Flannery continued to gently reassure Nero and guide him through the early stages of his adventure.
Now unaware of time and place, and of a growing melt from the reality around him, Nero noticed a slight flickering effect to his vision and the appearance of unusual formless shapes emerging before him, shifting in colour and morphing into otherness.
At this point, Flannery busied himself preparing the audio-visual experience he’d developed in order to recreate, as best he could in a Scottish lighthouse, something of the kaleidoscopic, Technicolor performance he would have witnessed with the tribe. He switched on the large plasma TV screen positioned on the opposite side of the curved room. The video featured the Gabon villagers Flannery had filmed at night, simulating the actions of a traditional Bwiti ritual – taking turns to repeatedly run quickly towards the subject, and then retreating, while holding burning torches. Large speakers began to pump out complex African drum rhythms.
On a rational level, Nero was aware that he was experiencing hallucinations, but at the same time a profound sense overtook him that something deeper was making its presence felt from within; as if introducing itself. It was at once alien, yet undoubtedly part of him; another aspect of his self that had remained deep and latent all his life, waiting for the correct trigger.
Flannery was cognizant of the stage Nero was reaching and offered encouragement, sensing he was reluctant to embrace the unfamiliar realm that was unfolding before his magnified senses.
Just like in the many accounts he’d read of other individuals’ experiences under the drug, Nero witnessed what he interpreted as some kind of cinema screen opening up before his mind’s eye, showing condensed highlights of significant scenes from his childhood. Most powerful from that period was that snowy night his mother left home. Nero had rewound to the confused emotions he felt that evening as his five-year-old self. Once again he could feel his father’s warm hand gripping his shoulder as his mother waved from the car and disappeared into the wintry darkness. An overwhelming feeling of sadness surged through him, mixed with anger and despair.
Sharing this space with his younger self, a spectral visitor absorbed once again into the rudimentary but sincere passions of a young boy, he knew from this moment of abandonment that he would always hate his mother. He perceived an ache of betrayal which was impossible to forgive, though filtered as it was through his mature mind and set against recent revelations, he began to make some sense of it all, why he felt like he did.
The movie advanced scene by scene through his life, unlocking repressed memories, showing him where he had gone wrong: people he had treated without thought; situations in which he could have intervened to lessen anguish; slights and numerous acts of selfishness and opportunities avoided. Each of these unresolved events had left their mark, a scar of sorts. Every time a convenient lie was conjured to absolve him of responsibility, it had sapped away his emotional energy, preventing him from moving on. The movie held up a mirror to this.
Nero observed how when replayed as a story before his eyes, his life had taken successive paths away from engaging in the world; avoiding the highs and lows of emotional or professional commitments; taken a wider and wider orbit away from the sun. He saw how he’d huddled himself away in a safe, dull self-imposed exile back in Oxford for all those days and decades – not living but steadily stagnating, self-medicated by regular doses of cynicism.
The ibogabeta enabled him to watch it all impartially and objectively. Without the impediment of Self, he could soak up the story and see where he had gone wrong; see what he needed to do to steer a more positive course.
As Nero closed his eyelids, a numinous red glow replaced the blackness and introduced a new phase. He was rewinding again, but this time back before his own existence. It was a curious and unsettling mixture of familiar and unfamiliar. Nero recognised the interior of the old flat in Coventry. He saw his nan, then his mum; but from what gradually dawned on him was through his father’s eyes. Nero felt his workaday worries: production targets at work; concern over his son; frustration at living over the pet shop; having enough money to get by on; concerns over his wife’s infidelity. But these feelings were overtaken by one of love: gazing into Pam’s eyes on their wedding day as he placed the ring on her finger; body and being suffused with warmth and undiluted joy.
Nero opened his eyes and once again stared at the cinema screen.
“This is how I wanted it to be forever, Nigel. I’m so sorry.”
He saw his mother sitting in his father’s armchair next to the fire, wearing her wedding dress on the day of Gordon’s funeral. She was still eighteen. Whispering mourners stood above her in polite conversation, each clutching a plate of sandwiches as she stared towards him, wiping tears and mascara from her eyes.
“You are still my little boy, you know. I love you.”
Then he noticed his nan amongst the visitors. Serenely, she placed her cup and saucer down and walked towards him, reaching for Nigel’s hand. He stood up but she was still much taller than him.
“Come on, it’s time to leave now. Be brave for your daddy... and don’t forget your guitar.”
The old Gibson seemed more the size and weight of a double-bass as he struggled to haul it across the living room floor, following his nan out of the front door and into the bright autumn sunshine. His father’s pristine, white Jaguar sports car was parked in the street with the top down. He recognised Aubrey at the wheel, beckoning him to hurry as Nigel looked where he could stow the guitar.
“Come on, old chap. We have to press on. Pop it in the boot and we can be off.”
“But where will my nan sit?” He turned around to ask her advice but she was no longer there.
Aubrey tapped his watch as he revved the raucous engine. “Come on, jump in, or we’ll miss the ferry.”
As they raced off down the road with the wind in their hair, Aubrey wearing leather trimmed goggles, Nigel’s attention was drawn to a plain white envelope flapping on the dashboard. Concerned it would blow away, he picked it up and glanced over to Aubrey.
“Do you mind if I look inside?”
Aubrey continued to look straight ahead, concentrating on the road while making determined corrections to the steering wheel.
“Of course, go ahead. It’s meant for you anyway.”
Nigel opened the envelope with his thumb nail and pulled out a single sheet of paper. He unfolded it and saw it contained no words, only a single small black circle in the middle of the page, about half a centimetre in diameter. Intuitively Nigel knew the circle signified his physical death and that at any moment he could be drawn to the other side of the symbol. A sense of dread welled up inside him, that if he did actually die at that moment his consciousness might still continue on and that he would be trapped forever in a state of unresolved anguish.
As the car hurtled forwards and Nigel continued to stare at the circle, he became aware that more than half of his life was over and that he’d wasted so much of it. In that moment, life suddenly became important and precious to him. The tide had turned and Nigel felt an exciting appetite for change course through his heightened consciousness.
Aubrey slammed on the brakes and the car shuddered to a halt with a squeal from the tyres.
“The sign up ahead; there’s a fork in the road. Which one do you want to take, the mountains or the motorway?”
It was as obvious as the sun to Nigel that the motorway represented a careful, grey course through life, and the mountain route a more unpredictable one but with the possibility of fulfilment and new experiences along the way – if he decided to grasp the nettle and take a chance. He turned to Aubrey.
“Right, the mountains it is.”
As the road wound its way and the miles passed, Nigel felt the warm breeze in his face. The luxurious warmth gradually became uncomfortably hot and humid, then stifling. He felt nauseous and leant out of the car to be sick.
“Here you go, into this.” A small white bucket was held towards him. “It’s quite common. Don’t worry about it.”
“There’s no Aubrey’s here. It’s me, Mal. Looks like you’re starting to come out of it.”
The curtains had closed on the bewitching big screen.
Hours passed as Flannery nursed Nigel back to a more familiar reality; steadily rising from his private purgatory; summoned from limbo. The negative creep reversed, a worldly rebirth had begun.
When the time was right, the two of them climbed the uppermost steps of the tower which rose up into the lantern room. Nigel was surprised by the overwhelming glare of the November sunshine that met him, amplified as it was by a series of huge, many-faceted annular lenses that filled the restricted space. It was too soon yet to identify any colours. The bewildering world of white resembled a photographic print developing in a darkroom tray: stark white paper which slowly passed through gradations of grey, solidifying to reveal the subject.
“I can’t believe how bright it is in here!”
On seeing Nigel dazzled by the concentrated daylight, Flannery passed him a pair of sunglasses. “Here. You might need these for a while.”
The black wraparound shades leant him the appearance of a blind soul singer or a shy, paparazzi-dodging celebrity. “Thanks.”
Staring through the lattice of storm panes that surrounded him, Nigel felt the disorientating sensation that he was standing inside a curiously round and elevated greenhouse in the sky. After a few minutes, his eyes slowly became accustomed to the light and he began to make out familiar shapes along the coastline and over on the mainland. Then he looked back inside at the radiating rings of the lens nearest to him, and by gradually moving his position of view became fascinated by the magical rainbow of iridescent colours that ran along the circular surfaces as they caught the sun.
Flannery pointed towards a building that lay inland from the nearest bay.
“See that bungalow? That’s the one I was telling you about earlier; the guest house.”
“Oh yeah,” he replied, squinting, “I’d like to have a proper look at it before I leave.”
“No problem. We could go after lunch if you like. Have you got your appetite back yet?”
“Not massively, but I think I should try something, it’s been over a day now.”
Later that afternoon, still with blue skies overhead, Nigel and Flannery rolled up at the property, which lay semi-concealed by a wooded rise in the land fifty or so metres back from a lane that ran to the coast. The block walls looked thick and solid enough to survive any storm the Firth of Clyde could direct at them. A stone wall surrounded three sides of the building, enclosing a solitary palm tree, emblematic of the largely mild climate. In contrast, sheep grazed around isolated, wind-bent scrubby thickets that lay further off on more exposed moorland. The view to the south was filled by a presently calm seascape, with the distant, pyramid-shaped island of Ailsa Craig piercing the sharp horizon.
Parked in front of the bungalow was a long, yellow van. Nigel quickened his pace towards the front door. “Looks like the owners might be here; maybe they’ll let me have a look around inside.”
Flannery shook his head. “No, they drive a Shogun; and anyway they’re visiting the mainland at the moment. No, I think I know whose it is. They said a friend of theirs was keeping an eye on the place.”
Nigel pointed towards a cable running from the van to the house. He lowered his voice in case he could be overheard. “Look, it’s plugged into the mains; the exterior socket.”
Flannery called out: “Hello, anyone home?”
They both waited a few seconds for an answer but none came. Nigel shrugged his shoulders. “Must be out walking or something.”
Flannery improvised the role of estate agent as he guided Nigel clockwise around the property. There are four good sized bedrooms, including the dormer. A couple of them have en suites for the guests. The kitchen was only fitted last year.”
Nigel pressed his face up against the largest window and peered in, masking the sun with his hands. “Yeah, I can see – just about.”
“It’s only about ten minutes’ walk from the beach.”
It was clear to Flannery from Nigel’s body language that he was smitten. He was smiling and seemed utterly engrossed, investigating every angle and stretching his neck in a vain attempt to see over the trees, doing his best to gather in the whole vista.
“I’m sold. When can I move in?” he quipped.
“Are you serious about it, then?”
“Completely serious. This place, the island... everything! This is the first thing I’ve known that is absolutely right for me for as long as I can remember.”
“OK then, I’ll have a word with Chris and Carol.”
For the remainder of his time at Flannery’s, Nigel was energized, both from the ibogabeta therapy and with the anticipation of relocating to the island. He was determined it would happen, and his usual downbeat, negative outlook had made a full one-hundred-and -eighty degree turn.
Next morning, Nigel was up bright and early, in time to get to the ferry port before 8am. He thanked Flannery for everything he’d done and repeatedly made a point of assuring him he would transfer payment for the treatment into his account as soon as his dad’s money was freed up.
“I know it sounds a real cliché, but you’ve changed my life.”
“It’s good of you to say so, but most of it was down to you. I just supplied the tools for you to find the truth for yourself.”
The closest Nigel could bring himself to a hug was shaking Flannery’s arm with both his hands. “No, but I mean it.”
The way things are going I should be seeing you again soon.”
“Yeah, I really hope so. Have a good trip.”