The Arrangement
– Colm Tóibín

At this distance I am still clear about most of the details. Much of it is exact in my memory, made in the same way as an etching might be made, the needle hard an d sharp, cutting deep. But I do not know how much time went by, how many days and nights, and maybe that does not matter. But how can I tell what matters? I know that the calmness of the sea was unusual. I never experienced this again and when I mentioned it to others who were more familiar with that stretch of ocean, they nodded nervously and searched my eyes carefully and seemed worried and turned away. Whatever they thought or suspected, I am certain that they did not know what happened on that ship during those days.

There was not a trace of wind. I am sure of that. For four days? Five? More? I don’t know. It seemed as though the vastness out there, the unfathomable dark places surrounding us, had lost one of their great properties, the sound of wind which is God’s weapon against the devil tedium, and our way as mortals to distinguish where we live from heaven itself.

It appeared to me and perhaps to him too, the other one, the one who eventually sat opposite me at the table and stayed close to me at night and began his work, that there would perhaps never be need for wind again, that the wind was an old performance which had ended, and we were now, with the actors, dispersed on the streets while the sets were taken down, the illusions broken. We lived as we moved northwards in a new and   stilled realm where the silence was punctuated only by the sound of our small ship shuffling through the water, a mild, honest, comforting sound, almost muffled, broken softly by our sighs and whispers in the room below, my room, the room that no one could enter without knocking. Or by groans in the night from the men in the rooms around us.

We were carrying the usual cargo. I had supervised its loading. Everything was counted and as it should be, packed tight in the hold. I had gone the night before we set out to the house of Robert James Sixsmith. I had gone there also when it was the house of the Lithuanian whose name I believe I never knew. And even before the Lithuanian I had visited that house. On the outside the building was one of those which faced the world with a humility bordering on sullenness. No one would have noticed it even had they passed it daily or delivered goods to the side entrance which overlooked the port. No one could have imagined the set of strange pillared patios within, like a maze, and the rooms which gave on to the patios, some of them small and filled with shadows even on days when the sun was high and clear, rooms laden with strange treasure - carved wood and ivory and some gold, and tapestries sometimes three deep hanging on the walls. He dealt, the old Lithuanian, mainly in lapis lazuli and indigo, and I understood that there was a room within a room which was opened once a year when a certain trader known as Fini came from Genoa, the trader who was later found drained of all his blood in a room in Portofino. He lay naked, I am told, like the rarest, the most exquisite, of all carvings. It was a sight to behold. 

Strangest of all was the girl, Turkish I thought, or from further south, tall and withdrawn, moving among the objects as though she too had been found somewhere. The mother died giving birth to the girl, or so the rumour went, but I would not have been surprised if she too were held in one of the inner rooms, or the two or three rooms that were carved down into the rock on which the house stood. No one ever entered these rooms unless one of us came into port. We were the dwindling number who knew where to go in search of the porcelain. Some others came when the Lithuanian was fading but he could not be fooled, just as Robert James Sixsmith, it seems, cannot be fooled.

There were three or four of us left. I did not know the others by name, nor did I want to. One, indeed, I had never seen. But the others had appeared over the years - one at the table near the entrance on the veranda of a port hotel, a run-down place, some miles from Rangoon on an evening before a storm; another in a storeroom in an inlet with some warehouses on the southern coast of Malaysia while I was weighing rubber; a third flitted by me on a street corner in Hong Kong on a calm evening in the ambiguous hour. One of these three men may be dead now. I am not sure. We recognised each other instantly when he we met on those occasions. It was the look, the expression on the face as though many lives had been lived before this one, and a sadness because each one of us knew that this, this sojourn on the earth, might well be our last. The sense of pure shivering recognition each of us felt at the sight of the other was as though we had met our father, or an ancestor, but more likely our second selves, someone we had once been or might have once become. We did not speak; there was no need for speaking.

Once a year, each of us called on the Lithuanian until he died and then we dealt with Sixsmith. We had tea and discussed nothing of any interest. We waited until night fell. When it was time to go, the girl appeared, but she did not utter a word. And then we were handed the box with the porcelain pots and each of us knew to leave by the door on the side of the house that looked away from the port. Each of us knew also not to fall into company until we were ready to set sail. Seeing the girl, knowing the apartness that she herself kept, made our apartness, or at least mine, natural somehow. I had her to contemplate - the lustre of her hair, her height, the colour and texture of her skin, the deep-set dark eyes. Sixsmith has her with him now all the time. I noticed his gazing at her, the longing in it, Sixsmith who guards the treasure and knows what he knows with an aura close to that of the Lithuanian.  If any man who lives may resemble another, then it is in that house it happens, the house close to the port that no one would notice or remember, except those few of us who have cause to do so.


It begins on the ship as night falls, the opening of the box. The shadows in the low-ceiling room plays against the shadowy elements within the glazed whiteness of the porcelain, the faint blueness that lies beneath the shiny skin of white, a whiteness from which all has been drained except the memory of what was once there. It must be calm for a day or more for this to work. The table must be bare and there must be no possibility of disturbance. The pots are long and thin, longer than a finger and wider. Holding one of them in your hand seems comforting, and perhaps even more, it offers a sort of coolness and sense of completion that moves into the arm and the upper body and then further, towards the inner reaches of the self, the nameless places from where dreams emerge and perhaps even love and sorrow.

Each pot must be touched and held. A few times I have heard men talk about the power contained within these pots. Each one was sure that they knew their place of origin, or some story of the man and the woman who made them, and each one was certain also that they had to be placed in a pattern preordained. I heard men chatter that the power could be taught or learned. I was careful then not to say anything that would make me noticed. Only once was I noticed. It was in London on the great river, as we waited at night for the tide to turn, and a man intimated to me that he knew that I was one of those selected. It was dark as we sat on deck and I wondered, were I to move at him, if anyone would hear him fall into the water, the splash, and I surmised that they would. I surmised too that he had taken precautions before he spoke because he was not a fool. I tossed his remarks away as you would the tip of a cigar and we both became silent then, as silent as the night around us. It was clear to me that he knew everything, but that he understood also the gravity of such knowledge. He made it plain that I would not have to worry about him. Such wisdom, I think, is rare. In the darkness that edged from the water and the starless sky, he needed simply to know he was right. That was enough for him.

There is no pattern and no set of rules, and there have been times when it is obvious that the power was not there, not in the material on the table, or not in me. But now, on the night in question, it came almost too easily. I understood that I was making from nothing a man who resembled me in every way and would remain in my company, wearing the same clothes as I was wearing, breathing the same air, in a state of pure discretion for some days before he would fade when the wind was strong enough for the pots to move and have to be returned to the box. He was made from nothing by placing the pots in a pattern on the table, moving them until the time was right and the alignment between them perfect. My double, my other self, did not, however, come from nothing as we understand nothing. It was more true to say that he had always been there and was waiting for the sign.

I knew, or usually knew, the sign, or it was in the strange glow which came from the shine on the surface of the pot. The alignment was not the same each time; it took effort, and concentration, and sometimes the last move was clear, obvious, and other times, there was a stubbornness in the distance between things which could be put right only slowly, using a fierce tact which left me exhausted.              

Once he was present, we managed to live in that space as though we were one. We knew when to hide and when to appear, when to lock eyes and when to look away from each other. Only when I removed my outer clothing for the night and changed into a nightshirt were the differences between us clear. He did not ever at any time shed a single item of his clothes, nor did he need to wash or shave.

Of one thing I am certain. When the spirit moved him that night to become corporeal, he was complete. On the second day, however, and I cannot be more precise than that, I began to realise that he was concealing his right hand from me. When he saw me looking, he smiled in defiance. And then, as though to make clear that he was not afraid of me or of anything, he placed his right hand on the table. The middle finger had been cut down almost to the knuckle. I am sure that the finger had been in place when he appeared at first. Now, the line of the wound was the texture and the colour of porcelain. It was smooth and white, with that strange suggestive inner life that I knew from the pots. I was so frightened when I saw that the finger was missing that I checked my own right hand and then my left. All the fingers were there. Then I counted the pots. My action seemed to amuse the other, the man who sat opposite. It was obvious he knew something I did not know. He displayed this as a sort of smugness or maybe it came as ease, a way of being relaxed in the room, a feeling which I did not share.

I shared it less when the next day brought no wind and I saw him watching the table, studying the arrangements of the pots. Years before, the Lithuanian had told me of the danger of such a period of calmness, and how the shadowy arrival turned substantial for a time could remain substantial, could csement his presence in the world, were he also to learn himself how to configure the pots. It would be unlikely, the Lithuanian said. The unlikelihood lay in all the conditions never being there at the same time - the calmness of the weather, the mixture of knowledge, intuition, patience and trust. And the power. One or two could easily mingle, I was told, but hardly all six.

I watched him begin to move the pots, and whatever power he now had it included the power to render me immobile. Had I been able to move I would have slowly placed all the pots back in the box, although I was warned never to do this until the wind was up.

It struck me that my double had everything in his favour if he could keep his patience. Now it was my turn to smile as I watched him arrange the pots, moving one sideways, another just a small amount to the left or right so that it stood alone. A great deal was at stake. If another figure, waiting in the air, were to come into being and sit on the third side of the table, this third figure would, of course, fade once the wind returned. But, if this third were created, his creator, my second, would live, would come with me on the journey north, would be released into the world where he would outlive me. He would learn slowly to sleep, and need fresh clothes. He would need to shave and eat and drink. He would feel that longing to arrive in port which endures for days as port comes close. He would soon feel sorrow and of course joy. He would grow to love.

As I watched him attempt to find the right alignments, using everything he knew, I noted not only his guarded panic, but my own. He was moving near a right arrangement. I alone knew how near he was. Or maybe he knew too, if only he had the courage to have such knowledge. I knew then that one small move stood between my gradual extinction and his growth. I remembered it now, my arrival under conditions precisely like these ones. It was long before the Lithuanian, but the same girl was in that house guarding over the treasure, and I remember the calmness, and that moment of luck and trust, followed by another, followed by something that came from within the fired clay itself, now all shiny and real, a whispering not to wait, not to worry, but to follow, make one more move and then come slowly into being. It would happen. If I had the patience, it would come about. All we both had to do now was watch.