ESSAY Alex Diggins

NWR Issue 119

On Building

We like to think that we make buildings, but, in truth, buildings make us. Our selves are controlled, conditioned, formed and performed by the built environment in which they play out. Identity is not a stable commodity. It is a quicksilver material that is remade every time we reflect on ourselves, or glance at a mirror, or catch an inscrutable emotion flash across the eyes of another as they gaze at us. But the buildings around us exert their own contouring impulse, troubling and transfixing our sense of selfhood more completely than any internal will or outside reflection. Buildings blur our certainties between what arrives from the inside and what comes unprompted from without; they can confuse the lines between prayer and grace.

Some time ago, I stumbled into God, in a cave. I say stumbled into, but it would be more accurate to say within. For the cave was God. Or as close to an idea of God as I can figure – then, or now. The cave was part of a temple on a small island in Indonesia and, though still early morning, the day was already lousy with heat and brittle with the voices of the tourists wandering around outside. Stepping into the cave, though, I was bathed in sudden coolness and quiet and another quality that I struggle to define. A quality which, on reflection, I choose to name as God. The temple was ancient – older than many of our churches – and the cave must have been far older still. It had about it – in its smoothed, sea-floor stone – the same elemental presence as a prehistoric grave mound, or a Neolithic cromlech. The sense of being a place so old that it has dropped out time. Or perhaps a fixed point around which time collects in deep pools. It felt a place where, if one had the patience, one could stand and watch ivy flick and retreat across its entrance, and seas of grass wash and crash around it, while it remained unmarked, as ageless as the day it appeared.

The cave exerted such pressure of the past that, as I stepped inside, I almost felt my ears pop; and, once in, I found my eyes struggled to resolve the gloom which appeared to be almost limitlessly deep. Looking into it, I felt like a diver who hangs, weightless and still, over the seamless blue of the open ocean, a blue shading to impenetrable black. I was aware, as it were, of vast columns of water that pressed above me, and of unfathomed reaches that stretched below, and I knew myself to be the sole point of definition in an inhuman space; but a point of definition that would vanish were I to turn, to pivot my body, and sink down, leaving an emptiness that registered no trace of my ever having been there.

I was not the first to visit the cave; it was crowded with the boneless presences of others. People had, year on year, come here to offer their fears, their thoughts, their dreams, their loves – themselves – to its stones; and the stones had taken and held them uncorrupted, preserved. The stones had listened to their confessions but made no reply, but that did not matter because their listening was sufficient. But why was I there? Did I have something to confess? Well yes, I suppose I did. The day before, I had been wasting time, checking my emails, when I opened a short, concise message from my mum which read ‘Uncle Paul died today. I’m not sure when the funeral will be, but I think it will be sometime next week. I’m so sorry that you had to find out this way. I wish I was there to give you a hug.’ The cancer had killed Paul appallingly quickly. I remember I had gone up to his room to say goodbye before I left. Though he looked drawn and thin, he did not look close to death, and I was awkward, unsure of what to say. ‘Alright, how you keeping?’ I had asked, with terrible, jaunty thoughtlessness. ‘Not great, but I think I’ll survive,’ he had replied, with half a smile. That was my final memory of him.

Now he was dead, and I did not know how to react. After reading my mum’s message, I had gone outside into a sunset that was swiftly drawing down to black. The earth had smelt fragrant and rich, and motorcycles had coughed quietly to themselves as they passed to and fro in front of me. I had looked across the road to a line of trees, mere silhouettes now in the golden light that blazed behind them, above which a flock of birds eddied and wheeled, forming patterns that broke before they could be read. I had looked and looked, but I could not cry. I failed to mourn. It all seemed remote, unmoored, floating free. I felt myself adrift between two realities – there was the reality at home, where Paul was dead and I would never see him again, where my cousins were without a father, my aunt without a husband. And there was the reality there in that sunset, homesick and halfway across the world, where no-one knew me, and the only memories of Paul were mine; where he stayed alive in this faraway place because he was still alive in me. Once I had come to terms with his death, I thought, he would be forever gone from this land he had never visited – by staying here and remembering him alive, I kept him so. Or so I told myself...

Alex Diggins was placed second this summer in the New Welsh Writing Awards: Aberystwyth University Prize for an Essay Collection for ‘Sea Change: an Argument in Six Parts’.

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