Excerpt

Burning Down George Orwell’s House

Andrew Ervin

May 5, 2015 
The following is from Andrew Ervin’s first novel Burning Down George Orwell’s House, a novel about a man who leaves the world of newspeak to live on the isolated Scottish Isle of Jura where George Orwell wrote, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Ervin’s criticism regularly appears in The New York Times Book Review, the Miami Herald, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and elsewhere.

Something rustled in the bushes outside the kitchen, then a monstrous face appeared in the window: an animal covered in mangy wet fur. It looked at Ray with knowing eyes that in a single glance interrogated him and his intrusive presence in this remote place, trapped in an old farmhouse a mile from the closest neighbors. The creature growled as if to speak and Ray screamed, but the hideous face still stared at him, its eyes shining with some fierce purpose, its crooked teeth glistening sharply from amid the soiled fur, until it’s so-nearly-human expression changed. In some savage and instinctual way, the thing appeared as startled as he was. It motioned as if to communicate with him through the windowpane: “Is everything okay, Ray?” it asked.

“Farkas? You scared the shit out of me.”

“Not literally, I hope. Would you mind letting me in?”

Ray unbolted the front door, where Farkas stood dripping.

Article continues after advertisement

“Come in, come in,” he said. “You’re absolutely soaked.”

“Only on the outside, Ray,” Farkas said. “Only on the outside.” He sat on the mudroom bench and removed his wellingtons. “I could however use a wee dram if you have some on board.”

“I have a bottle I’ve been saving for a special occasion, in fact. You go sit by the fire.”

Farkas pulled a chair up. “I’m terribly sorry to frighten you like that,” he said. “And I hope I didn’t catch you at a bad time, as I don’t mean to interrupt what you’re doing up here . . . what are you doing up here? I would’ve telephoned, but that wasn’t really an option, now was it?”

Ray dragged another chair next to Farkas’s. “I’m grateful for the company. I think I’m going a little stir crazy, in fact. Solitude is a lot less restorative than I thought. It turns out that life off the grid actually kind of sucks.”

“You’re not the first man to discover that for himself,” Farkas said. His voice carried a baritone roundness that in a different life might have lent itself to the opera. He lifted the glass to his nose, which was barely visible through his dense mask of mustache, beard, and eyebrow. “Nor I imagine will you be the last. This would be the eighteen-year-old, if I’m not mistaken.”

“You can tell that just from the smell? Slàinte,” Ray said.

It was without question the most complex and delectable whisky that had ever crossed his tongue. It tasted the way living on Jura felt, like his humanity could reach a greater richness simply by living in such a rough and untamed land. “You certainly know your whisky. I forgot the water—I’ll be right back.”

“Don’t bother, don’t bother. I can drink water at home. And I believe that I’ve had close to enough of the stuff for one day, and, in any account, malt this good deserves to be taken neat.”

“I didn’t hear a vehicle pull up—did you walk all the way up here?”

“Sometimes I forget how big this little island truly is. I left my car at the public road and walked the last five miles. That path has destroyed sturdier cars than my own.”

“I believe it. But that’s still quite a walk. I have to admit I’m beginning to wonder what Orwell was thinking coming all the way up here. It must have been even more remote back then.”

“The whole world’s shrinking, Ray, at least in one sense, and that’s the truth. As I’ve heard it, however, our Blair didn’t get on very well with the locals. He was liked, as they say, but not well liked. There wasn’t much use on Jura back then for socialist intellectuals,” he said.

“And now?”

“Funny that you mention it. You did manage to upset Gavin. Don’t let it worry you, though. It’s not entirely your fault. He may be holding you to blame for some past crimes. There are some old stories—and the details are murky—there are old stories that suggest our Mr. Blair got himself into some hot water while here on Jura. Gavin swears that Blair was responsible for some unpardonable offense against his mother.”

“Pitcairn’s mother?”

“The very same. Blair was unwell even before he arrived. He suffered from tuberculosis where our climate, as perhaps you’ve noticed, can lean towards the damp. It must have been quite difficult for him, though they say he often took to sleeping outside in an army tent. It wouldn’t be a stretch to believe that the man needed someone to look after him. He was incapable of preparing himself a simple cup of tea, so he certainly needed someone to do his cooking and washing up.”

“Let me guess. Pitcairn’s mother?”

“Aye, Beatrice Pitcairn herself. A saint of a woman, bless her soul. Blair proposed marriage and, ever the practical Englishman, even offered her a considerable dowry in the form of his estate and future royalties to what would become Nineteen Eighty-Four. Unfortunately, however, he neglected to take into consideration the fact that she was already married quite happily. Our little Gavin was at that point still little more than a gleam in her eye, yet now he has come to believe that—like our Eric Blair—you’re here to split up his family.”

“But that’s absolutely—”

“Hear me out now,” Farkas said. “He knows that Molly plans to leave Jura at her first opportunity and he’s none too chuffed about that fact. He believes that exposure to the likes of you and your so-called intellectual ideas is going to hasten her departure.”

“I came here to get away from people. Please explain it to him—I don’t want to split up anyone’s family.”

“I know that, Ray. Can I trouble you?” he asked, holding aloft his empty glass.

“Sure,” Ray said. “One sec.”

The sky had darkened even further. His reflection stared back at him from the same kitchen window in which Farkas had appeared, and Ray yelped again. He brought the whole bottle. Farkas was adding some peat bricks to the fire and stoking the ashes. The sitting room grew ten degrees warmer. “Now you can’t take anything Gavin says personally, Ray. He doesn’t care for much of anybody other than himself, but he upholds a special variety of loathing for outsiders—especially the tourists. And although I was born here, he still sees fit to consider me an outsider too, but I do try to get along with him. I can’t imagine what you said to the man, but I’ve never seen him so wound up, and you can trust me when I say that I’ve seen that man well wound up. You should have heard him the time Molly announced she was going off to art school.”

“Art school?”

“Aye, in Glasgow, no less. She didn’t even tell him she had applied until the acceptance letter arrived. I would speculate that every living soul on this island other than Gavin Pitcairn knows the importance of an education for Molly. The sheep and deer and seals know it. He called the school and threatened to burn it to the ground.”

“What an asshole.”

“He’s that, aye, but he’s also a good man in his way. He wants what he thinks is best for Jura, and it’s difficult to find fault with that impulse. That being said, before you go causing him any more trouble, I know for a fact that he would have burnt that school to the ground. Gavin’s entirely capable of such a thing, so unless you want to have your guts for garters you might want to stay clear of him, Ray.”

“Why, what did he say about me?”

“That at his first opportunity he plans to throw you into the Corryvreckan.”

“The whirlpool is real? Orwell mentioned it in his diary, but I thought he made it up.”

“I don’t know what you consider real or unreal, but right off the north tip of our island there’s a whirlpool which has swallowed up more fishing boats than you can count. Every few years the telly producers come out here to shoot yet another daft documentary about how Ulysses himself made it as far as the Hebrides. And some will argue that Corryvreckan is actually the mythical Charybdis, which makes it not so mythical by my reckoning.”

“You’re telling me that the sea monster from The Odyssey actually lives off the coast of Scotland?”

“That’s what they say.”

“And where do they say Scylla lives? Let me guess—Ireland?”

“As far as you’re concerned, she lives in Craighouse and goes by the name Gavin Pitcairn.”

Ray took a long drink. From the sound of things, he wouldn’t be able to buy supplies at The Stores or collect his mail for fear of being attacked by a crazed Scottish arsonist. “I’ll be right back,” he said, his tongue thick with whisky. He extracted a hundred quid from his wallet. “Give this to Pitcairn,” he told Farkas. “He says I owe him some money. That’s why he’s so mad. Tell him I’m sorry.”

“I’m afraid it may be a bit late for that, Ray, but I’m sure this will help. I’d encourage you to stay out of his way, which you will admit shouldn’t be too difficult for you up here. How’re you settling in, anyway?”

Good question. How was he settling in?

“Being here has definitely been liberating, and the whisky is spectacular. Do I remember correctly that you work at the distillery?” Speaking—or slurring, in this case—to someone other than himself felt great.

“I do, I do. I’m in charge of what you might call quality control.” Farkas touched his nose with a hairy finger. “This baby is my meal ticket. Or my drink ticket, I guess you could say. I possess an exceptionally acute sense of smell.”

“This house must be torture for you.”

“I’ll admit I detected a slight plumbing problem when I came in. And you’ve been burning garbage in the fireplace.”

“That’s quite a talent.”

“A blessing and a curse, Ray. A blessing and a curse, like most things. I will be happy to give you a tour—it’s quite an operation. And it’s my job, in a way, to keep a record of Jura’s history. Now I’m going to pour one more dram and head on back.”

“You just got here.”

“Aye, but I’ve quite a long walk ahead of me. I should inquire if given your interest in our Mr. Blair, you happened to take the opportunity to speak with Singer on your way over?”

“The ferryman?”

“The very same. He may be among the last of the locals who knew Blair personally. I’m not saying they were fast friends or anything, but I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t have some good stories for you—even if they aren’t what you might call true.”

Stupidly, it never occurred to Ray that he should ask the older folks about meeting Orwell. Some of the longtime residents might still remember him. “And Miss Wayward up at Kinuachdrachd. I understand that her auntie knew Blair, though she’s known to be a bit weird even for a Diurach.”

“Is there anyone else I should speak to?”

“No one that I can think of off the top of my slightly intoxicated head. Oh . . . Mrs. Campbell.”

“I should talk to Mrs. Campbell?”

“No! She is devout in her hatred of everything having to do with Mr. Blair, a fact that might explain why the two of you got off to such an awful start.”

“You heard about that?”

“Everybody on Jura and Islay has heard about that,” he said.

“That’s not why she hates me, though. Or not the only reason. I really was terrible to her.”

“Aye, I heard that too.”

“What’s her problem with Orwell?”

Farkas finished his fifth or sixth glass of scotch. “Well, there’s been some speculation . . . and it’s no more than that. One story, set somewhere between myth and reality, goes that Mrs. Campbell’s dear mother, who lost her husband in the war, took quite a liking to Mr. Blair while he was here for the first time to inspect Barnhill.”

“And?”

“What do you mean ‘and?’ You’re going to have to keep your ears open on Jura, Ray. She took quite a liking to our Mr. Blair, if you know what I mean, while everybody else on the island detested the man. She may have even spent a few weeks here at Barnhill.”

Comprehension descended more slowly than it should have. “Are you telling me that Mrs. Campbell is Orwell’s illegitimate daughter?”

“I’m telling you nothing of the sort. Rather, I’m merely reporting, for your own edification, about some of the mythologies of the Isle of Jura, like Charybdis or our werewolf.”

“Jura has a wolf running loose? I might have seen it!”

“Not a wolf, a werewolf.”

“Oh a werewolf. Of course.”’

“I’m entirely serious and you would do well to hear me out. Have you not noticed anything suspicious hereabouts?”

“Well, I have been finding dead animals on my front step.”

“Aye, and who do you think might be responsible for leaving them there, the tax assessor? And if I had to speculate, I’d say the first one appeared the night you arrived. Is that right?”

“I have no problem believing that there’s a wolf or bear or something loose on the island. I’ve scraped the evidence off my stoop, and it has me scared so shitless that I feel trapped in this house, but do you really expect me to believe that at the next full moon a werewolf is going to show up at my door?”

“No, Ray, I don’t expect you to believe it, but neither your belief nor doubt changes the reality. I have it on the best possible authority that it is not an ordinary wolf, but a lycanthrope, and we don’t only appear during the full moon—that’s just Hollywood superstition.”

“What do you mean ‘we?’”

“Well, if you must know, I have every reason to believe that I am a werewolf.”

“Okay, I’ll bite. Why do you believe that you’re a werewolf?”

Ray looked at Farkas. He did not appear to be joking.

“I have my reasons. We’ll save that story for another day. I know what you’re thinking, but I’m not insane. No more than most people at any rate. That night you first arrived, that was the equinox, if you recall.”

“I’ll have to trust you on that.”

“That’s when Gavin and Fuller and the men go out hunting, every solstice and equinox, same as they did when you got here. They don’t believe me any more than you do, so they have spent their entire lives trying to find and murder what was in your garden that night.

“Very funny, Farkas.”

“There’s nothing funny about it, I assure you. I’ll take another wee splash after all, thank you. It’s not something I can control, and I do worry that someone’s going to get hurt, namely me.”

“All the same, I think I’d like to see the next hunt. It sounds fascinating.”

“Aye, it is most certainly that. But I’ll ask you to do me a wee personal favor and refrain from shooting me. You’re looking at me like I’m daft, which I suppose I can appreciate, but even if you don’t believe me . . . and I don’t expect that you do . . . remember that the difference between myth and reality isn’t quite as distinct here on Jura as you might believe. Now I should go, it’s a long walk. Many thanks for the whisky.”

“Any time,” Ray said. “I hope you’ll come again soon.”

“That I will, that I will. I give you my word that the very next time I feel like a five-mile stroll through a snake-infested swamp masquerading as a path, this will be my first stop. I’ll see you down at the distillery one of these days and we’ll try to sort things out with you and Gavin.”

“Should I really be worried about him?”

“I can’t say, but it will be best not to risk upsetting him further, just to be on the safe side. This money will help.” Farkas slugged back the remaining scotch and sat in the mudroom to put his boots on. From his coat pocket he produced a small stack of envelopes. “I nearly forgot,” he said. “I’ve brought your mail.”

Ray watched Farkas splash up the hill until he disappeared into the rainy night. He went to the kitchen and, seeing his own reflection again, drew the curtains closed and filled a mason jar with water from the tap. The mail included a stack of printed-out emails Bud had sent to him care of the hotel. He placed them in the fire without reading them. The papers curled one by one in the heat until whatever bullshit his former friend and boss wanted to regale him with went up the chimney.

 

 

From BURNING DOWN GEORGE ORWELL’S HOUSE. Used with the permission of Soho Press.  Copyright © 2015 by Andrew Ervin.




More Story
'The Argonauts': Diary, Theory, Poem, Memoir Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts, the much-anticipated diary-cum-memoir-cum-pick-your-own-category from the celebrated author...