The following is from Martin MacInnes’s novel, Infinite Ground. A totally original, surreal mystery shot through with hints of the best of César Aira, Vladimir Nabokov, and Angela Carter. MARTIN MACINNES was born in Scotland. He has an MA from the University of York. He is the winner of a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award and the 2014 Manchester Fiction Prize
Walking is something perfected by children, the people who learn it and who have nowhere else to go. Walking is a special pleasure of children and they see it springing up in others. They learn it quite similarly, watching each other move. Children are the ones who learn to move for the first time, and not simply by growing but by moving themselves. Children don’t need to tell themselves to continue moving, once it’s all started, and adults are grateful for this process having been enabled. Once it’s been established, walking commands the community area as people move around and pick up pieces and drop them elsewhere. In addition to transporting body-weight and facilitating social interaction, walking maintains air-diversity in trailing multiple breaths across and over each other, and this in turn sup ports the growth of vegetable, fungal and animal life.
He got the call in the night, for some reason. His help would be appreciated going over a case. How recent was unusual—the man had been gone only three weeks. He was to put everything aside and concentrate, for a spell, exclusively on this. Resources would be made available. He would be given all the support they could provide.
He explained his doubts and received the necessary assurances: he would have authority and resources; he could work independently or in league; though he had officially retired, to all intents and purposes it would be just as if he remained a senior investigating officer.
Carlos, the mission person, was twenty-nine years old, single, and lived in a small apartment under an informal rent agreement that afforded him little security. He had joined his work-place—a financial institution in the process of a large and complex merger, leaving it for the moment without a name—six years ago, straight from college. He was devoted to his job, known to forego holidays.
He had recently moved into his own office, with a personal secretary: a considerable forward step. His work demands were said to have increased threefold, but remained nothing out of the ordinary. Reception records showed he was arriving earlier and leaving later every day.
Carlos took a metro and two buses to and from his work. To enter the corporation building he would wait for a vehicle to approach the basement parking lot entrance and jog or walk briskly in behind before the barriers closed. He phoned his mother, Maria, every second Sunday. Maria had been planning the meal at La Cueva for some time. It took around thirty-five minutes, after Carlos had got up from the table, for the party to establish that something had gone wrong. His cousin, Gabriela, had insisted they continue their meal, the price of which meant it was considered a treat.
Maria first reported her son missing the following morning, but he couldn’t be registered as such for another thirty-two hours. By this stage not only had all possibly significant forensic information been dispersed from the restaurant, but Carlos’s flat had also been reoccupied, his possessions, among which was either a telescope or a microscope, dumped in two black refuse sacks left out on the street.
The original investigating officers monitored his phone records, bank accounts and email addresses; all activity had ceased on the 24th. They interviewed his family, reconstructed the night in question and promised they would do all they could to find him. Most likely, one officer had said, your son left of his own volition, and he will walk back in through this door just any day now.
The inspector found it a little confusing to begin with, going over his questions with the people concerned—family, friends, the staff at La Cueva, adjacent diners on the evening Carlos disappeared—as their answers seemed laboured, artificial. People responded to his inquiries without any evidence of thinking. They spoke, almost to a person, in the manner of a performance. Of course they did—they had been through all this before, he realized, several times at least. He was not the first to put these questions to them. And now, bringing them back, all he was doing was dredging up remembered, polished versions of the things they’d said some time before.
‘It is just,’ she said, ‘that I haven’t been back here since. Maybe none of it happened. Is that possible, Inspector? Is that ourselves, there, at the table?’
‘Just tell me, Maria, exactly what you remember.’
‘Well we hadn’t all been together like that in years. A reunion of sorts, and it was all my doing. I sent the invitations, made the phone calls, the reservation. The thing about the meal—it wasn’t to celebrate a particular occasion like a birthday or an anniversary or something, it was simply for the good of us all seeing each other. Many years, I’m ashamed to say. It was a beautiful night—because of the atmosphere, the light. The storm had cleared; it had just stopped raining.
‘As you know, my son Carlos pushed back his chair, excused him self from the table and went to visit the bathroom. We had eaten our starters and we were enjoying our main courses. It is a little surprising Carlos got up while we were eating. He is normally such an attentive and thoughtful man, though I imagine you never believe a mother when she says these things, and why would you? And he had already gone earlier—I assume that that was where he went, the bathroom—which is also unusual, because he had not drunk more than three glasses of wine.
‘Should I really carry on with these details? I’d thought they were only important to me, because of what happened later, what was about to happen, in the restaurant I mean. I wish I could remember everything. It was remiss of me not to have started from the very beginning and recorded everything my child did, moment by moment, so I could always have it—of course I never expected him to go, to experience losing him, which is unnatural, a mother having to confront this in the case of her child. Not that I am giving up hope, either. For one thing I have brought you here, to the scene.
‘I began making lists. I’ve been doing so ever since he disappeared. There is so much I don’t know of his life and I wouldn’t even want to speculate, it’s his own private area, it’s not a mother’s business, but at least at the start, when he was small, I had complete knowledge of things such as where he slept, and so I have begun making lists of my impressions from his early years. Here, I will show you one.’
The inspector scanned the pages, the locations written in brief descriptions as items numbered from the margin: ‘folds of assistant midwife’s lower arms’; ‘sand on cove’; ‘forest-patterned blankets’. The list went on. He nodded for her to continue.
‘Well, we recorded significant moments like birthdays and his first day at school, we have an album of photographs of those sorts of things, but it is all the uncountable, absent pictures between them that are difficult now. I’m not saying it’s possible to record everything, I know it’s not, but we could have done more, we could have held on to more of these details.
‘He pushed his chair back a little, careful not to let it screech on the tiled floor, and he smiled at his cousin, Gabriela, sitting to his left in a beautiful soft yellow gown that might have been thought too much for a routine family gathering, only this wasn’t routine at all, as I’ve explained, and I’m sure we would all have remembered it even if Carlos hadn’t disappeared. As he was pushing the chair back several inches in order to give himself room to stand, he stopped, aware just in time of the waiter about to pass between our table and the next; and it is just like Carlos to notice in time, he is very observant, and considerate, kind. He paused for a count of two, dragging out the motion, before finally standing up and walking to the bathroom. And that is the last I saw of him.’
She looked nervous. He thought she was waiting quite anxiously for his reaction. She looked away, then sharply back at him, as if trying to catch him out.
‘I have a confession, Inspector. In reality, I didn’t see him stand up from the table. I was aware of him doing it, from the corner of my eye. I didn’t pay attention, but others later told me he had gone to visit the bathroom. This is merely how I have chosen to remember it, with more of the detail it deserves.
‘I spend a lot of time imagining him pushing back his chair. I spend days doing only this, Inspector. I could speak about this for as long as you have to listen, which I know you will advise me is contrary to the interests of my health, but still, it helps, in some way.’
The heat obstructed him. It slowed down everything. Action took a little longer in this weather. Getting dressed, preparing food, going up and down a flight of stairs. You had to walk slowly as a caution against ruining clothes. He was late for appointments, yet frustrated when the other party arrived later still.
Transport suffered, one public strike after another. Walking wasn’t much better: in dense pedestrian areas you could actually feel, live, the substance sloughing off the population. At the same time other life quickened. By afternoon there was the odour everywhere of product turned to pulp. The bins, even at a distance, appeared unstable, as if you could see the fruit inside expiring, liquefying and vanishing. It was getting worse. He longed for the inhalation of cold, fresh air, all but floored by the momentary consideration of standing on a dawn coastline, the sound of a slowly lapping tide, the hint of new colour to the east.
The inspector lived in the north of the city, a significant distance from the station. When he and his wife had first moved in it had been relatively cheap. Food outlets on street level, an assortment of unpretentious cafés. The area had an unjust reputation for high crime rates. It wasn’t a quiet place, but that was okay. The calls, in various accents and languages, the crash, at all hours, of bottles tipped into industrial bins. Sirens, infants crying. They had got used to it all; they hadn’t minded so much. She used to say she couldn’t sleep in hotels. Something about the silence. She had been conditioned by the drone of accumulated outside sounds, louder in their evenings as they prepared to sleep. He, however, could and did sleep anywhere.
A commute of forty-five minutes minimum was required to get into the city, and he had enjoyed this journey, not just as a buffer, but as a productive time to think, encouraged by movement and transition. He had often had ideas, insights, breakthroughs in cases, even, as he walked with the hundreds of others down towards the subway tracks or emerged blinking out into the sunlight at the other end.
He liked to imagine the subway traced the route of the river, the Rio Paraná, passing from the east, where the hills on the city edge gave way to the sculpted landscape of the financial district. The river itself changed according to context. From the corporate verandas the water could appear golden, the sunlight refracted off several thousand glass panes; from the river edge itself it was brown and fast, thick with the smell of copper.
La Cueva was set into a natural hillside out on the eastern limits, past the financial district, near the top of a climb. At capacity it seated two hundred diners with additional space for eighteen at the bar. The floor was finished black and was reflective for three hours late in the morning into early afternoon. Prices were considered moderate to expensive. The Rodriguez family running La Cueva specialized in steamed river fish; it was what Carlos was eating the night he disappeared, and so the inspector ordered it too, whenever he ate there.
He was always made to feel welcome by the owners, partly, he thought, because he was inconspicuous, slow, he never made a scene. It would not be evident to the other diners that a police official was there, regardless of whether or not he was present in a work capacity. And the owners seemed a little uncomfortable, almost apologetic, having hosted the scene of a crime, something inexplicable.
They barely cooked the river fish, were at the very least skilled in making it appear that way. Kept the head attached, even the eyes, though the flesh came away easily and softly with the fork.
The case was not clear cut. It interested him. As if it were not enough that the man had disappeared just like that, from the middle of the restaurant, without any warning whatsoever, and further that the mother, in relating the incident, had gone on for some time about what even he would consider insignificant details, it turned out, now, that this woman was not who she claimed to be. She was not related to the disappeared, had in fact never met him, was merely employed by the mother to speak on her behalf, she being— the real mother, that is—still too upset to return to the restaurant.
Maria—he had yet to find out the actor’s name—had continued in her narration at the restaurant, reconstructing for him what had happened, or at least her idea of what had happened, along with some of her apparently inexhaustible supply of speculations. What it came down to, he thought, the fuel for this torrent of words, was her astonishment. What had happened, simply put, was impossible. Carlos had gone to the bathroom and then to all intents and purposes he had stopped existing. ‘There is something awful about it,’ she said, ‘in the old sense.’ She had the feeling she could have followed him directly, gone where he had gone, put each foot in the right place every time, and still been none the wiser. As well as being distraught, confused, she was afraid. It was almost as if she had been moved suddenly into a country whose rules and customs she had not mastered, yet she had gone on smiling, carefully choreographing her steps, talking in a slow and laboured translation full of clichés and idioms, ready-made blocks of speech that she could present in the hope it would not become obvious that she did not, in fact, know anything about this bewildering foreign place in which a man can simply be going about his day and then be cancelled. She was not in favour of investigating the occult, that was a dangerous path, she said, a tricky slope, but there was something dark and strange at work here, and often now, even in broadest daylight or while going about her shopping in the supermarket, say, she would watch her step, mindful of the ever-present possibility of going under, of falling, vanishing into a darkness.
He located copies of the local and national papers printed on the day of the disappearance and on those immediately preceding and following. He knew the weather—the last day, incidentally, of rain before the heatwave—the traffic levels; the sporting events; the political engagements. He recorded every crime, however unrelated or innocuous it seemed; took note of every traffic violation in the city in the hours after Carlos had gone missing.
A supplementary pull-out in one of the less reputable dailies had listed an anticipated astronomical event. The event, if that’s what he was to call it—a passing astral arrangement—had been predicted to take place on the date of Carlos’s disappearance, but he could find no further allusions in the subsequent press. Omega Centauri, a globular star cluster thousands of light years away: twelve billion years old and vast enough that from areas low in artificial light it resembles a full moon. However many times he read the article, he couldn’t really understand what it described. He imagined eclipses, moon shadows, breaks in the line of vision. An arbitrary pattern, a geometry moving inconceivable distances away and Carlos, meaninglessly, hidden from view in a shadow line.
He knew the staff at La Cueva and he knew the regulars and he knew each room and every exit. He went out for cigarettes. He visited the bathroom. There was nothing unusual about the restaurant, nothing that seemed to present any opportunities for a sudden and comprehensive disappearance.
He visited morgues and looked through unidentified bodies and saw nothing. Speculating amnesia, he consulted the psychiatric wards and hospitals but got nowhere. The questions were familiar and the staff were sure they had given the police these answers before, some time ago.
He worked largely without thinking. It was the best way. He would fall into something, a discovery. He amassed notes, detailed transcriptions of his days’ inquiries, the places he went to and the people he talked with. The more information that accumulated, the more likely something of significance would come up. Some detail, no matter how innocuous it might appear at first, would be the key to finding out where Carlos had got to on the night of the 24th.
From Infinite Ground. Used with permission of Melville House. Copyright © 2017 by Martin MacInnes.