A New Face

An excerpt from Nicholas John Turner’s Hang Him When He Is Not There

This text is excerpted from
Nicholas John Turner’s
Hang Him When He Is Not There,
available now from Splice.

I took a bus to the very tip of Australia, which, if you know it, looks like a finger pointing north. And then I swam or else I took a small boat, or a chartered aeroplane, to Indonesia. I moved up through Asia like an urgent wind, with my head down, stopping only to eat and to sleep. I grew filthy from travelling. Where was I going? Toward my fate, that’s all I know. To here, I suppose. I remember nothing of it really, no emotions, nothing aesthetic, aside from the burning sensation inside my nose, since I only had the one nostril at the time and every frozen breath I took came through it. I ran with my mouth shut. One night on a field in Vietnam I stopped to sleep inside an empty cottage or else a hut. There was nothing inside and no-one around. I was woken by deer looking in through the open windows, bleating, or else making some kind of terrible sound. I got up and left, shoving aside a huge doe that was blocking the doorway. I remember the meaty feeling of my shoulder as it drove into her chest, throwing her back a pace. I was not followed. I moved on. It went on forever like that. Then one night I was chased along the Indian border by a pack of children or else very small people wearing masks, which was like the subcontinent itself anthropomorphising to capture me. I was caught and thrown over the back of a motorcycle and driven into a cave in the side of a mountain. There a woman with layer upon layer of ruffled skirts and nothing to cover her breasts tried to talk to me in a language I didn’t know. Then she used a language I did know. She asked me what it would cost to make me leave the East forever. I realised that she was frightened of me, but I also understood that she was obviously the bravest of people, and that that was why she’d been given the task of bargaining with me. I don’t remember answering her. Instead I woke up with a new face, which is to say as another person. I was in Peru, in civilian clothes, in a market, and there was a Japanese girl trying to talk to me. I didn’t understand her. Not then, nor ever. But anyway I took her hand and made her my own. After Peru we moved to Argentina, and then to Colombia. (We spent too long there. That’s the truth of it. Not that I want to say anything bad about the city, or Colombia, for that matter. The fact is that I don’t know the first thing about either of them—that’s exactly the problem. For a while I couldn’t tell what was happening because I was happy and that was something new for me. We took the bus to a hotel in Melgar one weekend. But as we came down the mountain and passed through the little towns on the way, I saw a kind of fear overcome her that didn’t really subside until we returned to the city a couple of days later. We stayed on in Bogotá until the end of the year, travelling to the coast a couple of times because it seemed to please her. We hadn’t made friends with a single soul in over five months. Nor had we been apart, except in our dreams. That is, unless she was following me in my dreams, as I once suspected. Though there was the one week when she flew home out of Cartagena, and I waited for her in this old woman’s apartment, wondering if I’d ever see her again. That was a week of unbelievable anxiety. I pretended to be someone else, an artist, and I almost went crazy. I probably would have kept the alternate personality if she hadn’t returned. I have nothing to offer artistically but I’m better at lying than anything else. On Christmas Day of that year a man stopped us as we were walking to the supermarket near our hotel. He asked where we were from. He was English and had lived in Bogotá for ten years. He owned a restaurant not far from the hotel, on the edge of the Candelaria district. He invited us to a New Year’s Eve party at his restaurant. On the night she dressed in a strange green dress that I’d never seen before. She put on makeup for the first time since I’d met her. Her lipstick and eyeshadow drifted across the lines of her face, as though she was a child who’d stolen her mother’s toilet purse. When I saw her smiling to herself in the mirror, I grew incredibly nervous and for a while I tried to get her to forget about it altogether and to convince her that we should stay home after all. I failed. We went to the man’s restaurant at dusk. There were metal grills around the front of the building like a cage. No-one was inside and all the gates were padlocked. We walked around the back to the courtyard and jumped the fence. The back of the restaurant was basically the same as the front, enclosed by vertical bars. There was a window cut into the back door. Standing on our toes, we could see that there was a table set for a party inside. There were candles burning across the table and paper crowns on each of the chairs. The plates in the middle of the table were piled with food that looked like it had just been laid out. There was no-one sitting there though. We called out and knocked on the door through the bars, but no-one answered. We sat out on some plastic chairs in the courtyard and waited. After about an hour she started sobbing. The makeup streaked down her face. She went back again and again to the door and screamed to the man, whose name I’ve somehow forgotten now, or else I’ve probably blocked it out for my own good. Her voice cracked and slid horribly when she screamed. If you’ve ever heard a soft-spoken Asian woman howl, you’ll understand. Eventually I went up and put my arm on her shoulder. The candles continued burning inside. I told her to sit with me but she wouldn’t budge. She screamed again and again and shook herself against the metal bars. At eight o’clock or so the next morning, she woke me up in the plastic chair. On our way out I looked inside again. The food was still there but the candles had exhausted their wicks. We climbed the fence and walked back to our hotel.) We went to Panama and then to Mexico. She spoke very little English and I spoke no Japanese, and neither of us understood more than a word or two of Spanish. We hardly left the hotel rooms where we were staying, and most of the time I suppose we might have been anywhere on earth. But, no, that’s not accurate. We were alone and we were nowhere, which is not true of too many places. We’d stay in one place until I woke one day and recognised what I saw, felt something like belonging, and on that day we’d prepare to move city again. In the absence of exercise for my one and only language, without any friends, nor books or magazines or newspapers, which I’d deliberately banished, I felt something like liberty, a clearness of thought, or else thoughtlessness. We made love all through the days. And the nights, until sleep crept up and swallowed us. Sometimes we’d fall asleep in the act, one or both of us. Years later, when we no longer shared anything but the past, I read by chance through a catalogue of sexual intercourse and discovered that we had been driven, by instinct or else sheer isolation, to the very bowels of depravity in those days. I had never thought of our lovemaking as a series of actions that could be isolated, described, and labelled. But I have learned that certain things we did are considered among the more marginal acts of sodomy. By which I mean the outer margins. I can only suppose that this was a consequence or else a coincidence borne of our absolute ignorance. In any case, those were the acts through which I consider my adulthood to have begun. It was only through them that I truly became someone other than myself. Or so it seemed to me.

About Nicholas John Turner

Nicholas John Turner is a writer from Brisbane, Australia. His début novel, Hang Him When He Is Not There, was published by Splice in 2018 and longlisted for the 2019 Republic of Consciousness Prize.