“Little islands are like large prisons: one cannot look at the sea without wishing for the wings of a swallow.”
Sir Richard Burton
One morning we set off, Bob and I, to work on a little house in the pine forest on the way to the coast. Before we left, we dropped a quarter tablet of lysergic acid each with our morning orange juice. Bob had been carrying the half tablet around in his back pocket for years, Sandra had given it to him years before that. “It’ll probably give us a pleasant little buzz” he said as we popped the tiny white fragments in our mouths, and washed them down with the juice from the orange trees on the terrace outside.
The house we were going to work on belonged to Fernando Maza, a regular visitor to the village who lived mostly in Paris. He is an Argentinean with a heavily moustachioed face which is always alert and watchful. He never wears socks. I would often seeing him sitting back from the general palaver, observing. In conversation, his eyes narrow and smile and his mouth opens wide. He streeetches the end of a sentence, whether for effect or because of his accent, I never knew. But it is an infectious and charming quality.
His thick black hair is brushed loosely back, and falls curving down either side of his forehead. His badly shaved sideboards are greying. He walks with a springy step except when drunk, which is often, when he shambles. When drunk, he would sometimes argue loudly with Alfred Durhssen, but most often he would sit in a corner and play his flute, joining in with the Pamboli Band if they were around. He gets drunk, he says, to extinguish the lucidity which otherwise makes his life unbearable. Brandy douses it. It sputters only briefly again when he plays the flute.
Fernando is a painter, a successful painter. He paints – or did then – barren chequered landscapes, reminiscent of Dali, sparsely littered with architectural wreckage and stone letters and numerals. He had been painting these for some years, and they sold well.
His point, couched in the cunning language of a painter justifying – and selling – his obsession, is that numerals and letters have a visual and mystical significance beyond their representative quality. They are silent but eloquent symbols that go further than language, than mathematics and hold within themselves the secrets of civilisation. And when you’re on a good thing, stick to it. Fernando once told me that there is no point in happiness, only fools are happy. Susie countered by asking him whether he was happy in love. “I’m too old for love” he replied. I told him that I happened to hold the social function of the fool in the highest esteem. He laughed his sniggering, chest heaving laugh.
One night at Gita’s he said to Bob and me “tomorrow I am going to Pariiiiis. I want you to go out to the house and put some yeso on my pareeeedes. You can do eeeeet?” Sure we can do eeeeet.
I had learnt to plaster working with Georges Sheridan. It’s a pleasant but boring and repetitive job, and one which we could just as easily have enlivened with a couple of joints. But no, the acid was there. I had not taken acid for years. Used to drop a little when I was working as a bouncer at a wine bar in Double Bay. The barman and I would share half a tablet before the shift started. It worked well, making me a quieter and nicer person. I broke up fights before they started – there was a lot of hugging. Whatever it was that we took then was very mild. I was not prepared for what happened on the way to his house accompanied, at the outset, with our house cat, Ruth, who liked nothing more than a ramble in the pine forest along the shore.
There’s a fig tree named El Gato
On the road to Lluc Alcari.
The King of Lluc Alcari
On a ladder in the fig tree
Wields his shining hatchet sceptre
And in a voice both round and mellow,
A purple olive basso, as deep
As that last bottle, asks the shabby fellows
Bumbling through his forest:
Where are you going? The question seemed, to those two, heads befuddled with a rogue dose of an unknown chemical (it may have been acid, it may have been anything), as deeply significant, not merely, as it must have been, as it was, from a local landowner, trimming his ancient fig tree, a landmark on the coastal track, a simple question of geographic intent, one of the two time honoured questions asked of all travellers everywhere: where have you come from; and where are you going?
He, the axe-wielding king, was not to know that in our state, a state in which we had traversed the narrow paths along the cliffs of the coast with some difficulty, owing to the fact that rock faces which we had to lean against in order to stop from crashing to the sea below had, on that day, a tendency to pulsate, to writhe, to kaleidoscope alarmingly, pink and green and living rocks, filled at times with arms and legs, serpents and songbirds; the sea a crazy sparkling amorphous presence, swelling, racing towards a point between itself and the sky, the very path under our feet wobbling, more like rubber than the solid stuff it really was. It was necessary to poke at the ground with a walking stick, itself somewhat rubbery, to reassure oneself of the firmness of the land beneath one’s feet.
Each breath appeared to be in tune with time. Above me I could hear a regular throbbing and whirring, the soaring wings of ten thousand eagles soaring overhead. It was – I knew – the universal pulse, the sound of the movement of the stars across the heavens, the budding of leaves, the opening and closing of daisies, a bear shrugging and blinking its way out of its hibernating cave, the welcoming whisper of the breeze through the weaving, wind shaped trees. Every single action, mine included, every whisper, sigh, chuckle, groan and scream was in time with the regular roar of the skies.
Later I read the phrase ‘the oceanic feeling of limitless extension and oneness with the universe’, a phrase used by Romain Rolland to describe the nature of religious experience to Sigmund Freud who, in the footnote written by Arthur Koestler ‘regretfully professed never to have felt anything of the sort.’ But then his drug was cocaine, a drug for the go-getter, not LSD, the drug of universal consciousness and enlightenment.
Meanwhile, back at the cliff face, a Viking ship raced across that bejewelled horizon under full sail down the coast towards the port of Sóller, hard on its heels a Chinese dragon throwing up a foam bow wave at a similar and unlikely speed.
We had been unable to enter Fernando’s house because the large and ancient key to the gnarled door of olive wood had taken on a life of its own and would not fit in the key hole. No matter how carefully and slowly we both tried, the key would twist and turn its way away from the keyhole, which itself was pulsing and throbbing. That was when we realised that what we had taken had not been the mild little trip that we had hoped for as we slipped the quarter pills in our mouth with our morning orange juice.
And that is how we found ourselves, alternately calm and filled with terror, crashing blindly through trees, avoiding harmless bathers and not so harmless men in green with firesticks and funny hats – the Guardia Civil – who had a habit borne of years of stealthily tracking smugglers of contraband cigarettes (contraband cigarettes, what an innocent time) along these cliff faces through the pine forest, of firing before asking questions, if their suspicions were raised. The villagers had no end of smuggler stories, all ending in death – for the smugglers.
“Dondevan?” A not so simple question to answer for two who had been seeking spider’s doors in the moss. Dondevan indeed. We whispered together at the base of the fig tree, discussing the implications of this question as the man in the tree looked down upon us, as one would look upon aliens, as indeed we were.
This Mallorquin farmer, whose every waking moment was devoted to the practical management of his estate, the pruning of trees, the collection of olives, the milking of goats, the slaughter of pigs, the manufacture of sobrasada – how could he understand these two refugees from a city in great south land whose days were filled, mostly with doing nothing, scribbling, playing the guitar, reading, wandering from house to house in varying levels of intoxication from various licit and illicit chemicals, nights filled with carousing and fornication, not even knowing the answer to a simple question: dondevan?
The most curious thing I remember about that first – and last – experience of a serious quantity of lysergic acid dietheylamide was that somewhere in my brain was an insistent voice which kept whispering “remember, all this is only the work of the drug, there are no Viking ships, there is no throbbing of the wings of ten thousand eagles overhead.” It was this voice that eventually persuaded me that the question was practical and innocent.
“Lluc Alcari” I answered.
“Lluc Alcari?” questioned the man in the tree, “Lluc Alcari no está por aqui” he gestured the way we had been stumbling, “pero por allí”, he waved his tomahawk behind him, up the hill.
Reason departed as quickly as it had arrived, and we began to stumble towards him, in the wrong direction, the while he insistently waved and pointed with his tomahawk ” por allí, por allí!”, we walked up to and past him, the only thought now in our heads to get away from him, our interlocutor in the fig tree and his little tomahawk. And then, I remembered. Something was missing. I stopped and turned, weaving, searching beyond the trees.
“Pero – el gato, donde está el gato?”
He looked around, now thoroughly confused. A cat? On the Lluc Alcari track?
“Gato? Gato?” A benign smile wreathed his round face. “No hay un gato.” That smile said, aah, they are drunk, borrachos, now I understand. A cat. Indeed. Que cosa!
And there was no cat. Ruffian Ruth the faithful cat had, I now remembered, slunk away as our behaviour became more and more erratic, back to the comfort of the hearth.
That day, which seemed to stretch for a year, ended with Bob and I seated outside the house of a kind German hippy (long dead) who had dragged a comfortable sofa for us, set up a stereo system – John McLaughlin – and provided us with a bowl of oranges on which we sucked while gazing down at the Med and gradually returning to earth. I remember marvelling at the time – how many places on earth were there where you could stumble to a front door, tell the person inside you were having a rather bad trip, and receive such kindness and understanding?
That day, it’s conclusion, it’s visions, its insights, is with me to this day. And is an ineradicable part of my experience of the island. I can’t walk along that shore, my most favoured on the planet, the place that I go to when things go black, without remembering events of that long ago day. It cemented a still strong if curious friendship with my trip mate Bob. It taught me that in spite of any doubts I might have about my sanity at times, there’s a mental stability there. And it ensured that I never took acid again. There was no point, after that.
All this was brought back to me recently, listening to Radio National’s Mind at Large, a programme devoted to ‘people who are taking hallucinogenic substances to aid their spiritual growth.’ Now, that is certainly not why Bob and I dropped that little half tab each on the way to the pine forest on the edge of the Med. But that is, as it turned out, how it turned out. And, as discussed on that program, it is an experience that subtly changed my life and one that has stayed with me ever since. You can read some of the commentaries mentioned on that programme here.