‘And then what?’ Clukewass asked. Somehow Rukenau looked a tad comical, and that gave Anton a strange satisfaction bordering on schadenfreude.
They were seated opposite one another in a little street café, of which there are so many in Barcelona. Clukewass spoke to the waiter quietly and asked for something.
‘I see you have mastered your Catalan?’ remarked Rukenau with more than a shade of respect in his voice. Clukewass felt proud, but Rukenau continued, looking absent-mindedly away, ‘I have always had a tenderness in my heart for people who spent their time learning things of no practical purpose. Only a truly beautiful mind can find in itself an ability to concentrate on something that has no relevance.’
Clukewass felt conversation was all of a sudden treading on shaky ground, and preferred to change subject, or rather to return to the original one. Besides, his Catalan still felt very coarse.
‘What happened then?’ he insisted.
‘Do you mean immediately following that realisation, that internal endorsement of failure? Nothing happened that was of particular importance,’ said Rukenau with a miserly, thin-lipped smile. ‘But later I…’
The waiter came and brought them both coffee. Rukenau drank his in one sip (his exhilaration was positively unhealthy) and continued with a nod, ‘Later I realised something that to this day is at the core of my continued existence. It has to do with the game, you see, Anton. The way the true game works.’
‘The true game?’ Clukewass was puzzled. ‘As opposed to what sort of game?’
Rukenau made a dismissive gesture. ‘Any sort of game. Board games, sports. All that nonsense.’
‘I suppose,’ Clukewass offered tentatively, ‘you are now going to say that life is the one true game?’
‘No,’ said Rukenau emphatically and thoughtfully, tapping his fingers on the table, ‘most assuredly the silent majority of lives are not—and need not be, contrary to the common misconception. But some are. So, you see, I thought: if your very self keeps issuing a heart-rending, hysterical scream at the thought of losing, if your eyelids are heavy with the weight of poison that paints everything in a yellow of insanity—then, I reflected, surely this couldn’t be right? Surely a soul so cut up couldn’t hope, no matter how much time it be given, to right itself against the unforgiving steel of the dagger of defeat that remained wedged in its very core? And then it dawned on me, curiously, here in this city, but a long time ago—more than sixty years ago—as I was looking at the Sagrada Familia.’
‘I shall curse you,’ complained Clukewass, ‘if you do not, finally, tell me what you had realised.’ He was by now used to Rukenau’s references of times long past, names long gone and forgotten.
‘Yes,’ said Rukenau rather theatrically. ‘If a game cuts you up, you cut back. A game leaves you bloodied, dizzy and disoriented? Cut it up and stitch it up, but don’t ever—don’t ever—don’t ever let it end until you are done with it, and not it with you. Bleed things of their power to resist. Lie in wait. Stretch thinly over large ground, but without losing self. Most importantly, ignore the time and the hurdles of which it likes to boast so much. People will have you believe that Planning is key, that any one point is where this thing Ends and another Begins, but this is never true; you will never achieve anything if you allow Time to be your sparring partner, because she cannot be bested, and to her power ultimately all of creation shall bow, and working with a failure in mind can bear only rotten fruit. But ignoring her? That is possible, nay, necessary. That’s what it means to be the Master of the Game. Gaudi, your namesake, was one such Master. In the splendid halls of his mind, free of the encumbrances of conventional time-space, he conjured an image of a thing so beautiful, so unearthly and so superior to most other man-made things that it was then that he was elevated to immortality, there that he partook of the Jade Emperor’s virtuous peach. Believe me when I tell you: the physical Cathedral, while certainly an object of beauty and marvel, is no match for the ethereal Cathedral that Gaudí saw when he beat the Game. And so to this day his Cathedral is not complete, as all the olden temples of stone and worship took centuries to complete.’
‘I understand,’ said Clukewass slowly. ‘I think I do understand.’
‘Cafés are boring,’ responded Rukenau suddenly and more than a bit capriciously. ‘I want to walk. Shall we walk?’
‘Oh, of course,’ Clukewass said eagerly. ‘Only I’m afraid I don’t have quite as much time as I’d like. I have a meeting to catch, one or another—of the useless sort, but I have promised to be there.’
‘Let’s not go anywhere, then,’ Rukenau shrugged. ‘After all, it is sunny and it seems, at least right now, this very moment, we are not in any particular hurry. I always wanted to ask you something, by the way, Anton.’
‘Yes?..’ said Anton cautiously.
‘Why aren’t you married?’
‘I suppose,’ said Clukewass rather timidly, ‘that I never… found the right one for me.’
‘Ahh,’ Rukenau nodded somewhat dismissively, ‘it is such a heart-warming confession, and yet one of decidedly no consequence. You are still far too young to be fettered by these foolish notions.’
‘But I would like to be loved,’ Clukewass objected, ‘and to love back. It is a very gratifying feeling.’ He covered his mouth with his hand, as if half-ashamed, half-unsure of what he had said, but continued, ‘It is perhaps the most beautiful of feelings.’
‘Indeed,’ confirmed the baron wryly, ‘while supplies last. And yet loves, too, ultimately pall upon one. This is the other thing that you learn when you elevate yourself to battle the Game: that the only satisfaction comes from victories and accomplishments; from something, in other words, that has been designed to have an end, a termination, a death—not rot, decay and disappointment. A failed love therefore is in many ways preferable to a love converted into a facility of comfort, where what used to be a hotbed of emotions becomes a hodgepodge of petty everyday contracts.’
‘How very predictable of you to say so; surely not all love is like that!’ Clukewass objected violently, nearly upsetting the sugar pot.
‘Of course not!’ Rukenau almost yelled. ‘But it is not about love as such that I am talking to you; how do you not understand? I am telling you that to rise above the everyday reality, to transcend the morbid limitations of earthly urges, all you have to be is a conscious part of a Game, nothing more; indeed, simply recognise yourself as a part of larger, more beautiful design that wraps the very cloth of time around itself—and work to alter that design. Do you understand that it is in the place where two fronts clash that God appears—in the place where motion and counteraction fight lethargy and status quo? And if you are without that perimeter, you are also without consequence or impact.’
Clukewass was nonplussed.
‘I am not yet quite insane, don’t worry,’ said Rukenau. He streched, and something clicked in his spine. There was a fervour in his eyes. ‘But I find it very surprising; indeed, supremely surprising that God is such a mystery to man.’
‘So you believe God exists?’ Clukewass asked somewhat stupidly.
‘Of course He doesn’t exist,’ said Rukenau with a conviction.
‘But you are…’ Clukewass began, but, unsure how to continue, moved to the second part, ‘yourself…’
‘What,’ said Rukenau, ‘an entity of uncertain existential standing?’ He chuckled. ‘But aren’t we all, my dear fellow? Aren’t we all…’ (That last remark seemed tongue-in-cheek.)
‘Certainly “we all” at least have our birthdates confined to this century,’ remarked Clukewass. ‘You, on the other hand, strike me as someone whose beginnings are fairly abstract. That is not the custom in an orderly society.’
‘That’s precisely why I know full well that the existence or nonexistence of God is a question of very little importance.’
‘Very few people would agree with you, I feel,’ said Clukewass.
‘Yes. Hence my surprise and annoyance. It escapes me utterly why people in their multitudes fail to understand that this question, the question they are trying to answer; that this time-honoured, blood-soaked quandary does not matter in the slightest. God is not a part of the Game. God is the Game.’
Somehow that simple sentence struck such black fear in Clukewass’ heart that for a second it seemed to come to a halt, and all sounds around him, he felt, quite ceased.
‘What?’ he said quietly.
‘God is the depression a starfish leaves on the seashore,’ said Rukenau fiercely, as if he had an age-long feud with starfishes. He rose, suddenly losing all interest in the conversation, and stared ahead of him. Storm was coming, he saw. ‘Understand that the starfish may be in the sea, or it may not; it matters nothing to one who is on the seashore. Man may be immortal, or he may not; he may be without sin, or with the most depraved heart; blood may flow, or flowers may bloom—truly, I say to you, all this is but part of an ever-unfolding design which has no purpose, only that it be maintained forever. And in that design, there is always place for that fundamental doubt, the fundamental longing to rework the Great Work, to game the Game; and hence the search for the Supreme and Final Architect. But the Architect is process itself, and the search. It is really as simple as that.’
‘So,’ Clukewass inferred hoarsely, ‘you were never in love with a particular person, you were telling me this tearful story just to explain how you were… cast out of God’s embrace… because there is no embrace?’
Rukenau said nothing, but instead left some money on the table.
‘Who on Lord’s sweet Earth are you?’ asked Clukewass, fearing the answer. ‘Who are you, Gerard?’
Rukenau turned to him and smiled.
‘You do have to make it personal, don’t you, my tender child?’ he said kindly, putting on his gloves. ‘What do you expect me to say? That I am Millions? That my name is Legion? That I am He who was cast out of God’s grace? All that drivel means nothing, for it is all part of one. I need to leave; I find sitting disagrees with my soul, so I will leave you to anticipate your exciting meetings.’
He started to walk away, then turned and said:
‘Consider me somebody who likes to stick around to see how things work out in the end. Is that answer enough?’
‘Quite. I suppose I shall see you soon, then?’ said Clukewass hopefully.
‘Certainly. I never quite let go,’ answered Rukenau very confidently. ‘Toodle-oo!’
And with that, he was gone.